Ithaca, N.Y. — Brenda Shoemaker remembers the exact moment she vowed to do whatever she could to improve truck safety on Ithaca’s hills.
Ithaca Is Bluegrass Jan. 23-25
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It’s the same moment she learned pregnant bartender and mother Amanda Bush, 27, had died. Shoemaker was in the hospital when she got the news.
“When I found out she had passed — that’s when I decided that I would do whatever, until my last breath” to prevent future trucking accidents, Shoemaker says.
“I promised myself and Amanda Bush, my dear friend who has a 2 year old baby, I promised her in that hospital that I would do these things.”
Bush was killed when a runaway tractor-trailer slammed through Simeon’s restaurant on June 20, 2014. Shoemaker, a manager who was in the building that day, had worked at Simeon’s for 14 years.
Since the accident, Shoemaker has devoted herself to the cause of preventing anyone else from dying as Bush did. She sends emails, pressures public officials and tries to keep Bush’s memory alive.
“I can’t let her die in vain,” Shoemaker says. “I can still do my part and bring her to the forefront.”
On Thursday, Shoemaker was at Ithaca Town Hall for a meeting of of the truck safety working group. The group has released 23 ideas for improving truck safety and invited the public to discuss them at a forum.
Shoemaker said she has followed the group’s work closely. She listened for over an hour tonight as various elected officials and community members spoke about the different proposals.
Shoemaker spoke, too. She held up a photo of Bush to the crowd.
“I’m not a political person — I never was, my whole life, until this accident,” she said.
Shoemaker paused briefly, and then Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton interjected. “You are,” Lifton said, “as of now.”
The day of the crash
Shoemaker has thought about it every day since. She was at work at Simeon’s when the truck hit.
“I ran back toward the restroom screaming, ‘There’s been an explosion! There’s been an explosion! We need to get out,’” she says.
Shoemaker was rescued by a boy at the Mahogany Grill — ”one of the many heroes that day,” she says. Shoemaker was taken to hospital for inhalation, blood pressure and other health problems.
She would recover, but the shock of the day would never really wear off.
“You go to work, you think, okay, ‘I could get stabbed with a knife; I could get burnt; I could fall down the stairs with a keg,” she says, “not that a freaking truck is going to come through your restaurant and kill you or a friend.”
Shoemaker said she has seen a series of other horrific trucking accidents at the Commons. It will, she says, take a monumental effort to prevent them from happening again.
Spurred by Bush’s death, Shoemaker began talking to local politicians and has reached out to U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.
She’s worked with Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and Mayor Svante Myrick, and praised them for what she called their timely and thoughtful efforts.
Lifton and Myrick, according to Shoemaker, were both almost instantly in touch to try to do whatever they could, and Shoemaker says she is impressed by changes both small and large being sought by the truck safety group.
Still, the former Simeon’s manager worries that the really necessary change will take an overhaul of regulations at the federal level.
She cited a recent decision by Congress to roll back some safety regulations for truckers as a worrisome sign.
“Unless the federal government changes the way these trucking companies work, nothing is going to change,” she said. “They need to control them; they need to have regulations; they need to put road signs up.”
Mayor Myrick agreed. He stressed that local lawmakers are going to do whatever they can to get the federal government to change.
“We believe you are absolutely correct,” Myrick said to Shoemaker during the forum.
Going back to Simeon’s
The day after the crash, Shoemaker went back to the scene.
“I needed to see where I was and where (Bush) was,” Shoemaker says. “I needed to know that I couldn’t have saved her.”
Shoemaker was out of work for a few months after the accident. She then took a job at Little Caesar’s, and still works there. It’s not the same as working at Simeon’s, and as being with “the Simeon’s family,” she says.
Simeon’s owners have said that they are planning on going through with a rebuild. In September, co-owner Dean Zervos estimated in an interview that the bistro could reopen in anywhere from eight months to a year.
Shoemaker herself has been involved in the restoration process. “Every week, we’re in that restaurant getting things cleaned up,” she said.
Will the memory of the crash be too raw to go back to working at Simeon’s?
“It’s going to be hard,” Shoemaker says, “but I can’t wait to go back. I miss it too much.”
But the reopening must be coupled with a safer Commons. Shoemaker stresses that the work being done by local lawmakers is just a part of what must be done to prevent future disasters.
“This is a good start,” she says. “But it has to continue. It just has to continue.”