Frantic knocks roused Ke Wu from a deep sleep. His mother was at his apartment door, screaming for help. Something terrible had happened to his father.
Wu’s parents, visiting from China last spring, had gone for an early morning stroll. As they crossed North Decatur Road, a pickup coming down a long hill struck Wu’s father.
He was lying on the street bleeding and unconscious when Ke Wu arrived at the scene. Wu, a doctoral student at Emory University, watched helplessly as paramedics worked to revive him.
“I thought it was just a bad dream, a horrible dream,” Wu said. “Then I realized it’s really happening. (My mother) was crying really loud, really badly. I was trying to comfort her. All I could think was let’s get my father to the hospital. Let’s try to save him.”
Georgia has seen a spike in deadly pedestrian accidents the past two years, with roughly half occurring on metro Atlanta roads. Last year, 180 pedestrians were killed statewide, making it the deadliest year for pedestrians since 1997. The victims include a 6-year-old boy struck in south Fulton County road just days before Christmas; a 5-year-old hit while trick-or-treating in DeKalb County; a 79-year-old Smyrna woman killed as she crossed Cumberland Parkway using a walker.
Pedestrian accidents often draw little notice, receding quickly into the jangled backdrop of big city life. But the violent collision of steel and flesh can irrevocably alter the lives — not only of those who survive being struck or those who lose loved ones, but of the drivers and even the bystanders.
Witnesses describe the unforgettable sound of a vehicle striking a human being and the haunting image of a body flying through the air. The impact is such that clothes or shoes are sometimes knocked off and scattered in the roadway.
All of that happened in the case of Jianchang Wu, whose story is worth retelling not because it is exceptional but because it is not.
As with him, such accidents are often complicated, rooted in forces beyond any one person’s control. As with him, the history of the region has everywhere conspired to put too many cars and too many people on roads that can’t handle the load. As with him, the city’s complex political geography and perennial budget shortfalls often put even simple fixes, such as additional crosswalks, out of reach.
As the anniversary of Jianchang Wu’s accident approached, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to his son, the driver who struck him and a bystander who became a key player in the drama. Together, their accounts capture the horror of that day and its still-unfolding consequences.
‘It was the greatest time’
The months leading up to the accident had been a joyous period for the family. Ke Wu’s parents traveled to Atlanta from China in March. They were first-time visitors to the United States, here to see their son and his wife, a doctoral student at Georgia Tech, while taking in some of the sights.
The family enjoyed climbing Stone Mountain and strolling through the tree-lined streets of Savannah. Their stay was made even more special by the announcement that Ke and his wife were expecting their first child.
“Everybody was really happy,” Ke Wu said. “It was the greatest time before the accident.”
The elder Wu, 59, was fit and no stranger to busy roads, having lived in Beijing with its population of 21 million. He had retired from his job as a mechanical engineer. His son describes him as a detail-oriented, careful man.
The street where he and his wife walked, North Decatur Road, is dangerous to pedestrians, but it’s not even among the 10 most dangerous — a list that includes Roswell Road, Peachtree Road, Buford Highway, Tara Boulevard and South Cobb Drive. As Atlanta grew, many former two-lane strips in the inner-ring suburbs have grown into five-to-seven-lane highways hurtling through neighborhoods and commercial districts.
By their nature, they mix things that are simply incompatible: crosstown traffic traveling at high speeds; local traffic pulling in and out of driveways and parking lots; residents who walk to local retailers and bus stops; people simply going for a walk.
In some ways, Decatur is like many other suburbs: Booming development over the past two decades – especially near the Centers for Disease Control, Emory University and Veterans Affairs Hospital — has created new jobs and drawn both people and businesses. But North Decatur Road bears little resemblance to surging rivers of concrete like, say, Buford Highway.
Instead, the city and county chose to widen it to four lanes using as little right-of-way as possible, so as not to infringe on peoples’ yards and commercial properties. The sidewalks are skinny and too close to the street, travel lanes are squeezed together, and there are no turn lanes in many places.
“So the whole thing is sort of three sizes too small,” said DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader.
‘Too late for me to do anything’
Matelon Williams left his Loganville home last June 20 in his gray Dodge Ram pickup, headed for a doctor’s appointment. The 74-year-old Army veteran was unsure exactly where he was going; he had never been to that particular medical office.
Sometime around 8:20 a.m., he passed the Emory Woods apartments, driving east on North Decatur Road. Suddenly, a man appeared right in front of his bumper.
“He jumped through the traffic,” Williams said. “When I saw him, he was right at my truck. It was too late for me to do anything.”
Williams slammed on his brakes, stopping near the intersection of Landover Drive.
Wu landed face down, 100 feet from the point of impact — almost the length of an NBA basketball court. The impact of the crash tore his shoes off. His blood stained the road.
The crash brought the morning rush hour along that stretch of North Decatur Road to a halt. Several witnesses called 911. In each call, the cries of Wu’s wife are heard in the background.
Williams’ voice was relatively calm as he spoke to the 911 operator – something the retired Sergeant First Class attributes to his military service in Vietnam.
“A man got hit by my truck,” Williams told the operator, pausing for a moment, before he said: “Oh, lord.”
Williams said he was traveling under the 35 mph speed limit. While investigators determined speed was not a factor, some witnesses insisted he appeared to be exceeding the speed limit. And that would not have been unusual — researchers in a subsequent study observed that 92 percent of drivers along North Decatur were speeding.
‘I just kept hugging her’
For Susan House, the wreck was a crazy jumble of images and sounds, swift and terrible.
An older couple strolling down the sidewalk on a sunny morning.
An ear-splitting bang. A man lying immobile on the pavement. A woman’s wailing, so unhinged and beseeching it was almost inhuman.
House, a 52-year-old mother of three, usually didn’t take North Decatur Road to reach her job at Emory. But traffic was backed up on Clairmont Road. She didn’t want to be late; she was scheduled to meet with her supervisor for her annual performance review.
As she sat in traffic, she saw the older couple begin to weave their way through the cars to cross the street. The man bounced ahead, his wife trailing a few steps behind.
Then she saw a vehicle coming down the hill from the opposite direction.
“I said (to myself), ‘I hope he sees that car coming,’” House said.
But he didn’t. “He just stepped out smack in front of it.”
He landed beside the right front tire of House’s car. She got out to try to help.
The man’s wife was hysterical, speaking a foreign language and trying to turn him over (“No touch, no touch” shouted House). Suddenly, the woman grabbed House’s elbow and took off running toward nearby apartments.
They found Ke Wu and took him to the scene, where paramedics were already performing CPR.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen CPR in real life, but it is very brutal,” House said. “I just grabbed (Wu’s wife) and kept hugging her, so she wouldn’t see it.”
At the paramedic’s request, she drove the distraught woman to the hospital and sat with her for a time in the waiting room.
House kept her composure throughout the ordeal. But she broke down when she called her office to explain her delay, sobbing so much her colleagues couldn’t understand her. Her body trembled from the adrenaline.
It wasn’t until later that day, after she had returned to work, that she learned that Wu had died.
2 deaths: ‘we are willing to accept that’
North Decatur Road is “not a pedestrian-friendly road by any estimation,” said Casie Yoder, spokeswoman for the city of Decatur, which shares jurisdiction of the street with DeKalb County.
Two months after Wu’s death, 21-year-old Joseph Hayes was struck and killed at the intersection of North Decatur and Church Street. The year before, bicyclist Paul Taylor, 53, died not far from the site of Wu’s crash.
A total of ten crashes involving pedestrians — two of them fatal — occurred on North Decatur Road between 2003 and 2013.
There is no crosswalk at the intersection where Wu was killed. Had he continued to the nearest traffic light to cross and double back the half-block to Landover Drive, it would have been unsafe, too. There is no sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. He was crossing to an area cut off by a guardrail and overgrown brush.
A road safety audit conducted in September cited a host of issues with the road, which is traversed by some 24,000 vehicles per day.
It has a mix of residential and commercial development, and four MARTA bus stops on each side of the street that pedestrians often cross to reach. It also has blind curves, intersections without signals and cars traveling at speeds greater than the narrow lanes safely allow, said Rebecca Serna, of Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, who participated in the safety audit.
Serna hoped the audit would lead to action, but it hasn’t. “It’s extremely frustrating,” she said. “We shouldn’t need even one fatality to make a street safe. But the fact that two people have died trying to cross North Decatur Road illustrates that we are willing to accept that risk. I think it’s unacceptable.”
But Rader, the county commissioner, said the county doesn’t have the money to do a traffic study, much less pedestrian improvements. DeKalb is already charging the maximum sales tax allowable under state law. Citizens could not vote to fund transportation improvements with a penny sales tax, even if they wanted to.
‘When you take someone’s life away’
The events surrounding Wu’s death were over in less than an hour, but a year later the human toll endures.
The police cleared Williams of wrongdoing, and he has no doubt the accident wasn’t his fault. A few weeks after the crash, he got the dent in his truck’s hood and grill repaired for $1,800.
Yet, beyond that, he was at a loss for how to respond.
“Must I send the family a card or drop them a letter?” he asked the police investigator.
The investigator discouraged the idea, telling him to “leave it alone.” And so, Williams refrained.
But his mind still drifts back to that jarring episode and its deadly consequences.
“He had a family,” Williams said. “That’s what bothers you, when you take someone’s life away.”
Ke Wu tries to avoid the intersection where his father died. He hopes public officials will improve the roadway in the neighborhood where he still lives.
“Maybe his death was something that can contribute good to the community and potentially save other people’s lives,” he said.
Wu said his mother, who returned to China, still struggles to cope with the sudden death. He translated the DeKalb County police report into Chinese to help his extended family back home understand how his father died.
Even though she has relatives in China, he worries about his mother being alone. Earlier this year, the family celebrated the birth of Wu’s daughter. The birth was joyous but bittersweet.
“They were waiting to see the grandchild,” he said. “But my father didn’t make it.”