ITHACA, N.Y. — Madison Cortwright squeals in her dad’s arms, giggles and falls to the floor.
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Bus To Nature: Route 22
The 2-year-old bounces back up. Then she runs to grab a kid’s toy, mashes it with both hands and flings her hair — dad notes it’s dirty blonde, just like mom’s — into the air.
The toddler laughs again.
“She’s my savior,” says Adam Cortwright, father of Madison and fiance to her mother, who was killed in the Simeon’s accident one year ago tomorrow. “It’s pretty much what my life is about now: Making her the happiest little monster I can.”
The Cortwrights met me at the Collegetown Bagels on Aurora Street in downtown Ithaca. We’re sitting less than a block from what was Simeon’s Restaurant — before a truck barreled down East Hill, smashed the bistro into debris … and took the most important person out of the Cortwrights’ lives.
Amanda Bush was 27 at the time of the crash — and pregnant. A well-liked bartender at Simeon’s on the Commons, Bush’s death and that of her unborn child drew national attention, sparked a criminal investigation, and set off a wave of government reforms over truck safety in Ithaca.
But the fatal crash also had personal, individual impacts. Cortwright says the way he conducts himself, his entire worldview, was transformed by the inexplicable horror of that day.
“To be at work and for something like that to happen? It just shows you how short life is,” he says. “I take everything more seriously now.”
That, he says, includes his responsibilities as a father. “I was a lot more laid back; now, we just hang out — right, munchkin?,” he says.
Throughout our interview, Madison is constantly at play. At one point, Adam Cortwright hoists the girl up and tickles her. They both laugh loudly.
An elderly couple waiting in line at the CTB register looks on admiringly at the apparent scene: A father and his daughter enjoying lunch on a sunny day.
It’s clear they don’t know the full story.
“I feel like she got robbed the most,” Cortwright says, looking down at his daughter. “I got to know her mother. She never will.”
1 — ‘I don’t know if I would have believed the truth had I not seen it’
Adam and Madison Cortwright were in Cayuga County on June 20, 2014, when a truck driver from Spokane, Washington, lost control of his brakes on East State Street.
Adam Cortwright got a call from one of Bush’s co-workers. Madison Cortwright was dropped off at the house of Adam’s parents, and he went straight to the city.
Cortwright parked outside of the courthouse and ran to the scene. As we previously reported, he fought through the police and emergency responders to see Bush. She had already died when he got there.
“I think about it all the time,” he says.
While the memory is searingly painful, Cortwright says he does not regret going inside Simeon’s to see Bush.
“I don’t know if I would have believed the truth,” he says, “had I not seen it.”
2 — Cortwright has not heard from truck driver
After the crash, Cortwright took some time off from work. He said that the thousands of dollars raised in online donations were a huge help, particularly for paying for Bush’s funeral expenses in their entirety.
“If you would put something in there, just a thank you to everyone who donated,” Cortwright said.
Cortwright also thanked the office of Mayor Svante Myrick and Vicki Taylor Brous, then of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, for helping him through the aftermath of the crash.
Cortwright eventually took a job as a cook at Agava, where he still works.
“After awhile you get to a point where you’re sitting around, I realized I needed to do something,” he says.
In the meantime, he’s also filed a civil lawsuit that names several trucking companies as defendants in connection with damages for the crash. Cortwright says it’s important for him to recoup whatever he can for his daughter’s life after the little girl lost her mother.
“I still don’t really understand it all,” he says. “I just let my lawyers deal with it — I figure that’s the safest way to handle it.”
Cortwright also said he has not heard from Viacheslav Grychanyi, 37, the man who was driving the truck at the time of the accident. (Grychanyi has pleaded guilty to several traffic violations but faced no criminal charges.)
“I would be receptive to him, but I don’t have much to say. I wouldn’t be offended by his phone call. I’m kind of surprised he hasn’t called,” Cortwright says.
“If I killed somebody’s wife I’d make the phone call.”
3 — ‘Not a day goes by when she’s not on my mind’
Amanda Bush helped raise her younger siblings. Parenting seemed to come naturally to her, Cortwright says.
“She knew what she was doing … If Madison had a fever she’d know six different ways to solve the problem,” Cortwright says.
Cortwright says he generally tries to avoid downtown Ithaca. He hasn’t been back to the former site of Simeon’s since the crash.
“I wouldn’t go walking up the block or anything,” he says, then looks to Madison. “Daddy would go a couple of blocks out of the way to avoid that, huh?”
Other signs of Bush, however, are unavoidable. Cortwright holds up a photo on his cell phone of Bush as a child.
“She’s a constant reminder of Amanda,” Cortwright says of Madison, “she looks just like her.”
The two now go to Bush’s grave about once a week. They look together at photos of her on Bush’s iPad.
It’s not much of a substitute. But Cortright says it’s his obligation — both for Bush and her daughter.
“Not a day go by when she’s not on my mind,” Cortwright says. “But you just have to keep going forward.”