Jumbo's Car Crash: Two Dead, Legendary Liberty City Soul Food Eatery Mangled UPDATE
Jumbo's after the accident
photo by Jon Tayler
In a matter of seconds, the truck bore down on Ken Knight and his friends.
It was around 8:30 Saturday night, and Knight was standing outside Jumbo's Restaurant in Liberty City chatting with two longtime regulars, Wilton Harris and Al Jo Hamlin. Harris, a reverend at St. Barnabas William Church, was talking to Knight, one of Jumbo's owners, about attending services the next day. Suddenly, a white pickup truck flew down the street and veered into the restaurant's parking lot. Knight yelled out to Harris: "Reverend, run!" Then Knight ran.
There was a boom, followed by the crash of broken glass and metal. The truck had slammed into a car parked in front, pushing it through the front of the restaurant. "It lifted the truck up like it was nothing," Knight says. He picked himself up off the asphalt and went to check on his friends. Hamlin had been throw back into the restaurant, where he lay motionless next to a counter. Harris was pinned under a truck.
"They were dead before they knew what happened," Knight says.
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The accident, caused by an allegedly drunk driver who lost control of his vehicle, killed Harris and Hamlin and did heavy damage to the restaurant's front.
It's just the latest blow to Jumbo's, which has been struggling financially. Hurricane Wilma wrecked the building in 2005, and the economic recession that followed hit the business hard in an already impoverished neighborhood. Now, facing yet more repairs, Knight hopes the restaurant can survive.
"If you take this place away, you take away a lifeline of this community," he says.
The day after the accident, plywood boards covered the shattered windows, and bits and pieces of broken taillights littered the parking lot. Inside, broken glass and pieces of the wall, along with dirty smudges and streaks of paint, marked the floor. A few patrons lounged around inside -- the restaurant, normally open 24 hours a day, closed Saturday night and reopened at 6:30 a.m. "To not open would have been a double tragedy," Knight says. "You've got to think about the living."
The worst of the wreckage had been cleaned up, but Knight knows the real work has yet to begin.
"We don't know what the cost is going to be," he says, rattling off a list of expenses: a mason to fix the façade, an electrician to repair damaged wiring, a contractor, a carpenter, new windows.
There were close to a dozen people inside the restaurant when the accident happened. None of them was hurt. Neither was the driver of the pickup truck, who remains unidentified.
Witnesses on the scene said the pickup truck sped up as it went through the intersection of NW Seventh Avenue and 75th Street, where Jumbo's sits. Knight claims the driver was staggering as he got out of the truck and then tried to dispose of a case of liquor in the vehicle. After arriving on the scene, police officers took the driver in for questioning, according to Miami Police Sgt. Keandra Simmons. No charges have been filed.
The accident has marred Jumbo's 57th anniversary. The restaurant gained notoriety in 1967 when the new ownership integrated the dining area and the kitchen staff. It was one of the first businesses in a still-segregated Miami to do so, and close to two dozen white employees quit when they heard the news. Jumbo's gained further prominence in 1980 when they stayed open around the clock after the McDuffie riots.
But business over the past five years has been down, and repairs have been constant. The accident adds a new series of challenges, but Knight says he's already received calls of support from Mayor Tomas Regalado's office and from Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, as well as a visit from Elaine Black, head of the Liberty City Trust.
"They promised the city's full resources to restore this historical landmark," Knight says. "You just hate to have a catastrophe like this occur to get someone's attention."
Knight says a news conference is planned for later in the week at the restaurant featuring local politicians to speak out against drunk driving and calling for help to restore Jumbo's. And for Harris and Hamlin, Knight wants to erect a memorial in the front of the restaurant, right in the spot where the out-of-control truck killed both men.
"These were two people who were leaders of churches," Knight says. "They were parents. They were two righteous men. And now they're gone. They shouldn't have died so violently."
UPDATE: The Miami Herald reports that the driver, 53-year-old Antonio Lawrence, has been charged with with two counts of DUI manslaughter. He's being held on $30,000 bond.
Check out more photos of the damage to Jumbo's:
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