This column was written earlier this week by Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.
It is reprinted here with his permission. We thank Gary for letting us share his words.
Ithaca, N.Y. — It’s Monday morning in downtown Ithaca. I am walking the Commons and Aurora Street. The sun is shining, people are hustling to work, and shopkeepers are opening their doors. Yet this is no ordinary morning here in downtown.
As we survey the damaged Simeon’s building on the east end of the Commons, one can see an engineering and clean-up crew studying the remaining debris around the building. I walk by the fence festooned with flowers and photos left in memory of Amanda Bush. Several thoughts come to mind.
First, I can’t help but conclude that life and death is sometimes measured in inches. A runaway truck pummels into a building with no warning at 40 to 50 miles per hour, instantly taking the innocent life of Amanda Bush working behind the bar. Inches away, patrons, equally unknowing, miss being hit by inches and are safely pulled out by workers from nearby businesses.
Construction crews working on the east end of the Commons had decided to knock off earlier than planned for day and had just pulled back from the intersection. One construction worker was moving through the intersection and missed being hit – again by inches. The lone employee working at Titus Gallery next door to Simeon’s became aware of trouble when there was a tremendous noise and bricks started to fly through the air. He was, fortunately, not in the path of the truck and was able to safely walk out of the Gallery. Throughout the incident, inches separated life and death.
We will undoubtedly learn more about the truck and the driver as a review of this case unfolds. But what struck me was the necessity for a split second decision by the driver – a decision no one should ever have to make — between hitting the restaurant and whoever was undoubtedly inside and careening into a busy pedestrian mall. The Commons work crews and pedestrians were visible; what an awful choice.
That evening, as first responders wrestled with the difficult task of recovery, another amazing drama was unfolding, led by a team of folks that included Department of Public Works and Building Department staff. This was the effort to stabilize the injured building, now itself a hazard with its State Street façade tottering and the truck lodged into the first floor. Careful and cautious thought went into a plan to demolish the front bays of the building to enable the truck to be dislodged without further compromising the building. I marveled at the dexterity and precision of the operator of a large crane brought to the scene. With the precision of a surgeon, the crane operator peeled back the roof and then strategically removed the first bay of windows and the façade facing State Street. While Monday morning is still too early to tell if the building can be saved, the actions of the engineering and building team along with the sure hands of the crane operator hopefully make it possible for this landmark property to be saved and rehabilitated in the months ahead.
One look at the site and the building and it is easy to praise the bravery and acumen of the men and women who responded to this emergency – the firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and towing services, as well as the individuals who worked nearby and who ran to the building to pull out survivors and quell the fire that had started. These first responders train to be prepared when an emergency occurs. It was clear this training paid off with the timely, efficient yet careful response.
I can’t help but think about the small independent businesses that are now temporarily closed due to their misfortune: Simeon’s Restaurant, Cornell Barbershop, Titus Gallery, and Subway, as well as the residents that lived in the building that had to be relocated. Building manager Jerry Dietz successfully found alternative spaces for all the residential tenants.
We, the community, will need to remember and stick with the businesses that will most likely remain closed until their spaces can be repaired. For Titus Gallery and Subway, that will hopefully be soon. For Simeon’s and Cornell Barbershop, this will take time. The Amanda Bush Memorial Fund has been created at United Way of Tompkins County to help cover the funeral costs and ongoing costs associated with the care of Amanda’ s young child. (If you want to help, please check out: https://www.uwtc.org/civicrm/contribute/transact?reset=1&id=24)
Finally, my thoughts revert back to reclaiming the street. While one cannot and should not forget or minimize the loss, the pain, and heartache, it is also essential that this key center of our community return to normal operations. Restaurant Row and the Commons are one of Ithaca’s favorite places to walk and sit, alive and brimming with energy and excitement- day and especially night. We need to come back, not just to stare, but to reclaim our street, to reclaim this most pedestrian of areas. As City leaders examine our truck ordinances and our safety precautions, we can do our part by honoring and providing for those afflicted and then by coming back, to stamp out our fears and to bring normalcy back to our beloved city.