Editor’s Note: On June 20, a runaway tractor-trailer slammed into Simeon’s Restaurant on the Commons and killed pregnant young mother Amanda Bush.

Matthew Peterson was inside the Titus Gallery adjacent to Simeon’s at the time. The truck barreled through Simeon’s and into the gallery, destroying much of the store and sending Peterson flying backwards off his chair.

Peterson agreed to let The Ithaca Voice publish his writing on the traumatic experience. We thank him for letting us share his words.

– Jeff Stein

The Other Side Of The Wall

By Matthew Peterson —

Friday, June 20th was a day very much like any other at the Titus Gallery in downtown Ithaca. The Titus Gallery is and art and antique store located on the Ithaca Commons next door to Simeon’s Restaurant.

Susan Titus, who founded the Titus Gallery as a showcase for her limited edition paintings of Ithaca, antiques and jewelry, took great pride in this little store on the Commons.

Things had been much slower at the store since the seemingly endless Commons construction had begun on April 15th, 2013. But the many faithful customers and art lovers of Ithaca and beyond had managed to keep the gallery going nonetheless.

It was another slow day at the store on Friday, June 20th and not many customers had come in. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

My name is Matthew Peterson and I am Susan’s partner both in the store and in life. On that day I was scheduled to work from morning until 4pm and Susan was to take over until 8pm that night. But at 3:30 she called me and said she wasn’t sure if she could get there by 4 since she was running late. I said don’t rush; 4:30 or 5 would be fine.

Shortly after 4 that day I was sitting behind the counter facing the wall our store shares with Simeon’s. A second later everything changed. I heard the loudest noise I have ever heard and the wall in front of me literally exploded. There was no warning at all.

Bricks, pieces of wood and shards of glass shot past me on both sides and over my head. Objects on the counter in front of me shattered with the impact. I was hit with objects near my left knee and hip and flew backward and off my chair. Instinctively I twisted as I was thrown back and just managed to stay on my feet.

Beyond the incredible shock, my first thought was complete amazement that I was alive and not seriously maimed. I vividly remember staring at my body hardly believing that all the parts were still there and intact.

I had no idea whatsoever what had caused the incredible explosion. Within moments the dust and smoke in the store was so dense and thick that I could see clearly only a few feet in front of me and I realized I was coughing and having trouble drawing breath. Yet I was so dazed and confused that I stood motionless for awhile trying to decide what to do and trying to make sense of what had just happened. Suddenly I realize that I had to get out and quickly. I still had no idea what had caused this disaster or what might come next.

There might be another explosion or a fire. I needed to get out!

It was at that moment that I heard people screaming. So I moved as quickly as I could through the heaps of brick and rubble to the front door and out of the store. Not yet knowing what had happened or when if ever I could return, I locked the door and walked out onto the sidewalk. Already there were sirens wailing, several policeman, and a firetruck outside. Perhaps I had stood in shock longer than I had thought. I gave the front door key to a fireman thinking that I did not want them breaking the door to get in.

A policeman told me I had to leave the area, so I walked over to Madeline’s Restaurant on the other side of the Commons where a crowd was already gathering.

There, standing in the crowd, I turned and saw the big tractor trailer loaded with cars which had just crashed into Simeon’s and nearly through the wall of our store. I remember looking at the single concrete block which was meant to be a barricade just in front of and to the left of the truck and thinking how silly, small and useless it looked next to the giant tractor trailer.

Almost by instinct I reached for my cell phone and called Susan. “You don’t have to worry about watching the store tonight,” I said. Then I told her what had happened. She said she would be there as soon as possible. Not knowing what else to do I took out my iPad which I had brought out of the store and began filming the scene and taking pictures of it as if I had been a mere witness to the horrendous event and not at the center of it. Only later did I learn of the tragic death of the bartender who must have died on the other side of the wall.

That night I doubt I slept more than three hours. The next morning as I stood by a window in our house I suddenly realized my whole body was shaking. Two days later when walking by a phone in our kitchen and it rang I jumped and began to tremble. After two weeks I continue to dreams about it and wake with a start. I still don’t sleep well.

We are still cleaning debris and broken things out of our art gallery. It is heartbreaking. Yet I count myself lucky. And I am often grateful that Susan was late that Friday. Susan and I are determined to reopen the Titus Gallery. We are determined that it will be more exiting and beautiful than ever.

But it will take a lot more work.

We are still both alive and together and that’s what is really important.

Jeff Stein

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