Ithaca, N.Y. — Dozens of people on Ithaca’s Commons Friday afternoon faced a terrible choice after a tractor-trailer smashed into Simeon’s Restaurant, killing one young mother.

On the one hand, the bystanders could keep a safe distance on Aurora Street, watching safely from afar, aware that there might be people inside the building in need of help.

The other option: They could rush forward, toward an apparently teetering four-story building, risking additional injury and potentially obstructing the work of other bystanders who quickly began leading the relief efforts.

The crowd was split between the two choices. Video taken on a bystander’s iPhone in the immediate aftermath of the fatal accident shows some in a group of at least 30 people moving toward the building and others moving away from it.

(The Ithaca Voice has decided not to publish the video out of concern for the victims’ and bystanders’ privacy. For more on that decision, see this link.)

Emergency responders didn’t arrive on the scene until a little over two minutes and 30 seconds after the crash, the video shows.

That meant — with no warning, and within seconds — waiters, parents, restaurant owners and many others simply going about their days were suddenly thrust into potentially life-altering decisions.

“Some would run over, and then some would run away, and then some would run over again,” said Sam Baranski, 23, of Candor, who works at Samara’s Restaurant on the Commons.

“I ran over, and I just — I don’t know … I wanted to do something.”

Sam Baranski and his friend Elliott Gagnon weren’t sure what to do after Friday’s crash at Simeon’s Restaurant. Here they are in Samara’s restaurant, where they work, on Saturday.

Baranski got within about 15 feet of the building. He watched as several older men shattered the window pane by throwing tables at it to help bloodied people escape.

He was searching for a way to help when he looked up and saw a pile of bricks fall from the sky.

Dust burst through the air. Much of the brick exterior of Simeon’s had been
ripped apart. The side of the building was bent at a surreal angle.

“I realized the whole thing could fall down,” Baranski said.

“So I was kind of in a back and forth between, ‘Should I do something or get out?’”

Ithaca police soon got to the scene and took control. They have since identified the victim as Amanda Bush, 27, of Lansing, the mother of a 14-month-old. Bush was killed upon impact.

Viacheslav Grynchanyi, 37, was the driver of the tractor-trailer that slammed into the restaurant. He has been ticketed with being over-length and having an inadequate braking system.

The crash occurred at around 4 p.m.

Elliott Gagnon, 19, was helping Samara’s get ready for the early evening dinner rush when he heard “a big pop.”

Gagnon rushed outside. His boss called, “‘Oh my God, is everybody okay?’”

The scene outside was chaotic.

Servers fully dressed in their black uniforms sprinted toward Simeon’s carrying pitchers filled with water.

A man stopped in the middle of the street to cross himself. A teenager put his hands over both ears.

A constant alarm sounded from the restaurant in three repeating notes: One, two, three; One, two, three; One, two three. It continued for more than four minutes.

Some talked hurriedly and scrambled for supplies.

“Fire extinguisher?,” one man said, “Go, go, go!”

Gagnon, like his friend Baranski, credited civilian responders for creating some order at the scene. They were crucial for preventing well-intentioned bystanders from taking counter-productive actions, Gagnon and Baranski said.

“There’d be a rush of people, and there’d be one guy yelling, ‘Get back, get back!,’” Gagnon said.

That left the others, like Viva employee Rebecca Foloway, to do what they could.

Foloway said that when she saw a blaze inside Simeon’s she quickly brought a fire extinguisher to the civilian responders who had begun controlling the scene.

“I saw there was a small fire so I ran and got the nearest fire extinguisher,” Foloway said. “The fire got bigger so I brought them another.”

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.