Volume 79, Number 23 | November 11 - 17, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

Westbeth resident Margie Rubin of Disabled in Action, right, blues bass player Robert Fitzsimmons, center, and other neighbors of Shami Chaikin converged at the scene of her accident near Bleecker St. last Thursday around noon. A line of dried blood was visible in the bike lane.

Woman clings to life after city truck crushes her in bike lane

By Lincoln Anderson 

In a gruesome accident, an elderly actress from Westbeth was partially run over by a Parks Department garbage truck while riding her motorized scooter in what is supposed to be a protected bicycle lane last Thursday morning.

Initially, Shami (pronounced Shah-mee) Chaikin, 78, was listed in critical condition at St. Vincent’s Hospital. But as of Tuesday, there seemed to be growing hope that she would pull through.

Toni Dalton, a friend of Chaikin’s at Westbeth Artists Housing, said she had been getting updates about her from Miriam Chaikin — Shami’s sister, who also lives at Westbeth — and other Westbethers who had been speaking to Miriam. 

“They’re sewing her stomach back up today [after having opened it to check where bleeding was coming from] and taking her out of an induced coma,” Dalton e-mailed The Villager around noon Monday. “Now they will see how she is [while] awake. She is on kidney dialysis. That’s all I know for now.”

Five hours later, Dalton gave another report:

“Fay just called me,” she wrote. “And they put a feeding tube inside her stomach and they think the bleeding mostly came from her shoulder. The doctors feel positive now that SHAMI is going to make it... It’s looking good. HOORAY!!”

In an e-mail to The Villager on Tuesday, Miriam Chaikin wrote, “My beloved sister is seriously damaged. She passed one crisis yesterday and has more to go. But she holds on against great odds — and we pray.”

Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson
Nancy Matthews found some relief from the traumatic incident by immersing herself in her gardening.

The accident occurred on Hudson St., by Abingdon Square Park, just north of Bleecker St., right across from where the Doughboy statue stands. The bike lane is protected from moving traffic by a row of parked cars, but the truck was using it.

Chaikin has arthritis and a bad back, which is why she rides the motorized scooter. At the time of the accident, she reportedly was on her way to the McBurney YMCA, where she goes daily for her exercises. Apparently, she was riding on the bike lane’s right edge, when she got pinned under the truck’s front right wheel. 

According to one report, by DNAinfo.com, witnesses said Chaikin had been trying to pass the truck, which had been idling but suddenly started moving. 

Chaikin suffered massive trauma to her shoulder, broken ribs and a punctured lung — but luckily her head wasn’t under the wheel — according to neighbor Nancy Matthews, who went to St. Vincent’s Thursday evening to check on Chaikin after the shocking accident.

Matthews, a Westbeth resident who is Abingdon Square Park’s part-time gardener, was gardening at the scene Thursday morning around 9:30 when the events unfolded. She ran to help Chaikin, though — incredibly — didn’t even realize until later who it was because the injured woman’s head had been turned away from her.

Matthews spoke about the accident a few hours later, taking a break from digging tulip holes in Abingdon Square Park. She recalled how she had been moving a sprinkler in the newly named Arthur W. Strickler Triangle just south of Bethune St., which she also tends, to water some taxus — a type of yew shrub — that she recently transplanted from Washington Square Park. That was when she noticed the green Parks Department garbage vehicle coming north up the Hudson St. bike lane, one worker driving, another going around to collect the trash from Abingdon Square Park’s garbage cans. 

“He was moving forward slowly,” Matthews said of the truck. “I was working in the triangle — and I saw the Parks guy’s partner say, ‘Oh, no!’ He was raising his hands, he looked hysterical. I went, and the driver came out and he said, ‘My God! I didn’t see her! I swear I didn’t see her!’”

Matthews rushed over and reached out to Chaikin.

“I squeezed her hand and I said, ‘I’m here.’ She squeezed my hand back.

“She was a little bit under the wheel,” Matthews said, “and so she couldn’t really move, and I saw her back [rising and falling] breathing regularly. But as more time passed, I could see her breathing wasn’t as strong, and that scared me. It just seemed like it was so long [until help arrived].”

She clung to Chaikin’s hand for what she figures was seven minutes, until police came and told her to back off. She was reluctant to leave Chaikin there by herself without support, but she said she understands the officers were just doing their job.

“I said, ‘I can’t let go of her,’” Matthews said, recalling her thoughts at the time. “I’m not a trained fireman or policeman — but they have their procedures for a reason. 

“The police kept saying, ‘I want to hear from you,’” she said of how one officer talked to Chaikin. “They cut her clothes off, because they have to see what part is injured.” 

Within another 10 minutes, she said, they had loaded the stricken woman into an ambulance headed for St. Vincent’s.

Villager photo by Toni Dalton
Shami Chaikin at a recent event at Westbeth.

Left at the scene a few hours after the accident, was an inch-wide, raised, dried rivulet of dark crimson blood, sloping across from one side of the bike lane to the other. There were also a bunch of red Luden’s Throat Drops, some still in wrappers, others crushed into a red glitter, a small round red reflector — possibly from Chaikin’s scooter — a zipper and a scissored piece of a collar with some down feathers inside it, possibly from Chaikin’s coat.

  Shami Chaikin is an original tenant of Westbeth Artists Housing, which opened 39 years ago at West and Bethune Sts. in the former Bell Labs complex. Home to more than 300 artists and their families, Westbeth proclaims itself “the world’s largest artists community.”

“She just did a performance last week at Westbeth, with Karen Ludwig,” noted fellow Westbeth artist Gina Shamus, who stopped by the accident scene last Thursday. “They were doing a performance of Miriam’s haiku — and the tanka — I don’t even know what that is.” (Tanka, like haiku, is a classic Japanese poetry form.)

Shami’s brother, Joseph Chaikin, a renowned avant-garde theater director, also lived at Westbeth, where there is a memorial to him in the courtyard. Shami often worked in productions directed by Joseph, who ran The Open Theater. Another sister lives in California.

In a strange twist of fate, after Joseph Chaikin died six years ago, Matthews, who has lived in Westbeth since the 1980s, moved into his apartment, since she had adopted a young girl from Cambodia and needed a bigger place. And Shami lives down the hall from Matthews, as well.

“I told Miriam I was holding her hand,” Matthews said later. “She said, ‘I’m glad Nancy. I’m glad it was you.’”

Calling The Villager Thursday morning right after hearing of the accident, Assemblymember Deborah Glick was furious that Chaikin was struck by a garbage truck in a protected bicycle lane that is supposed to be off limits to motor vehicles.

“Inexplicably, the New York City Parks Department had a garbage truck in the protected bike lane,” Glick fumed, “and someone in a scooter, a disabled or elderly person, tried to pass it or get by it because it was obstructing the bike lane — where you have a presumption you’ll be safe from motor vehicles. The workers were just picking up the garbage, I’m sure. Just too lazy to be parked on the corner and walk the garbage.”

Vickie Karp, a Parks spokesperson, said she couldn’t discuss the logistics of how the accident occurred, since litigation may be pending.

“I can’t comment at this time,” she said. “The woman who was involved in the incident has filed a notice of claim, and may file a lawsuit.” 

Karp confirmed the vehicle was a Parks Department “packer,” or garbage truck. Asked if it’s typical for these trucks to ply the city’s protected bike lanes — of if it’s even legal for them to do so — Karp said, “It’s a good question. I can’t answer it. It’s a police matter.”

The response from the Police Department, though, made it clear that it is not legal for city vehicles to drive in bike lanes: A police spokesperson said the driver of the Parks truck was issued a summons for operating a motor vehicle in a bike lane — which rates as a violation. The spokesperson also said that, as is done in any accident where there is a fatality, possible fatality or serious injury, the driver was given a breathalyzer test. 

“He blew zeroes — negative for any booze,” he said. In general, it’s highly unlikely for a city employee to be driving drunk while on duty, he added.

As for testing for drugs, that can only done by a blood test, he said; but apparently officers at the scene didn’t feel the driver looked under the influence.

Transportation Alternatives, the nonprofit pro-cycling and pedestrian group, has championed the Bloomberg administration’s installation of 200 miles of new bike lanes. Regarding a municipal garbage truck having struck Chaikin in the protected bike lane, Wiley Norvell, a T.A. spokesperson, said, “City vehicles are obliged to obey the same laws as all other motor vehicles on the streets.” 

Norvell said the protected bicycle lanes on Eighth and Ninth Aves. are seeing similar problems with Department of Sanitation vehicles between 14th and 23rd Sts., where the drivers use the lanes “either to park their vehicles, or get a cup of coffee in the morning, or pick up garbage.” 

“It’s distressing that these are the city’s vehicles that are causing these problems,” he said. 

Norvell added that the bike lanes are popular with motorized-scooter users since they can bypass sidewalk congestion, as well as avoid going up and down curb cuts, which aren’t always in good condition.

Regarding safety in the bike lanes, the T.A. spokesperson said that, for bicyclists at least, using them is much safer than riding in traffic. He cited a report by the city’s Department of Health on serious bicycle injuries and fatalities from 1996 to 2005, which found only one cyclist fatality in a bike lane caused by a collision with a motor vehicle during the 10-year period.

In December 2006, Eric Ng, a 22-year-old teacher, was killed while cycling near Houston St. on the Hudson River Park protected bike path by a drunk driver barreling down the bikeway from an event at Chelsea Piers.

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