I was lying on my bed, watching the tube. Suddenly, the awful sound of a crash shattered my channel-surf-ing mood.
No screech of brakes. No blaring horn. Just a loud, dull bang. I threw down the remote and ran out the front door. I looked up and down the street. Nothing seemed amiss on this quiet Sunday after Thanksgiving, but it was hard to see. There aren’t enough streetlights along my stretch of North Hollywood‘s Magnolia Boulevard.
I walked slowly back to my apartment, trying to figure out what had happened. In the darkness, I made out a large object at the foot of my driveway. Oh, great, I thought, some fools tossed something from their car as they sped away.
As I got closer, I could see two legs. It was a woman, lying faceup on the ground, and she wasn’t moving.
I didn‘t expect to see this. It was surreal. And, for an instant, I froze.
Snapping out of it, I blurted, “Lady, are you hurt bad?” No response. Bending down, I nudged her. “Can you hear me?” Still nothing. My God, I thought, someone ran this poor woman down and didn’t even stop.
I stood up and ran into my house. Grabbing the cordless phone, I punched in 911 and raced back outside. “I got a woman down. She‘s been hit by a car and she’s hurt real bad. We need the paramedics here fast,” I shouted at the emergency operator.
I told her my address, and she switched me to a male voice. I don‘t know who he was. I bent down next to the woman. It was so dark, I couldn’t see her face. I shook her again. Still no response. Two women walked up, and I yelled, “Did you see the accident?” “No,” said one, “but I saw the car leaving. It was a small car.”
Everything around me seemed to slow down. The voice on the other end of my line began asking questions. “Is she moving?” “No,” I responded. “Is she conscious?” “No.” “Is she breathing?” “I don‘t think so,” I said. “Check her breathing,” he ordered. “Put your hand on her chest.”
“She’s not breathing,” I answered. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Put your hand on her chest. Check her nose.” I did it again. I felt for a pulse. “She‘s not breathing,” I repeated. “Are you sure?” he demanded. “Yes, I’m sure. I checked,” I yelled.
“Can you start CPR?” he asked. “I can‘t see a damn thing. It’s too dark,” I responded. “I have to get a flashlight. Hold on. Hold on. Don‘t hang up,” I shouted. “I have to go back into my house. I have to find a light.”
It seemed to take forever. “Okay, I found one,” I said as I ran outside. I got back to the woman and shined the light in her face. She was about 60, I thought, with streaks of gray in her hair.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Her mouth is open. Her eyes are open. She’s not breathing. I think this woman is dead.” “Can you start CPR?” he repeated. “I don‘t know how to do it,” I said quietly. I felt helpless. “That’s all right. I can walk you through it. Can you try?” he asked.
I said nothing for a moment. I figured this woman had massive internal injuries. I didn‘t want to press on her chest. I was afraid a mistake would cost her any possible chance to survive. Finally, I told myself, “Jim, you have to try this. You don’t know what you are doing, but you have to try it anyway.”
Just then the paramedics and fire truck arrived. It was about 6 p.m. Within seconds, emergency workers were attaching equipment to the woman. Minutes later it was over. They pronounced her dead. A paramedic pulled a white sheet from the truck and covered her body.
LAPD black-and-whites began pulling up. I saw jewelry and pieces of her key chain scattered along the road. One of her tennis shoes lay next to the driver‘s-side door of my car. Her other shoe was found on the grass near my front window. From the trail of her belongings, I estimated the woman must have been thrown about 30 feet by the collision. I picked up her earrings, a house key and key ring, and gave them to a firefighter. I figured if a miracle happened, they should send them to the hospital with her.
Police blocked off the street as a paramedic brought out yellow police tape and cordoned off the area near the body. My front yard became a crime scene. Ten to 15 minutes after the woman was pronounced dead, a black Nissan was let through the police line. A guy, who appeared to be in his 20s, walked up to a firefighter and said he was in the car that struck the woman. Police took him and the driver, a young woman, also in her 20s, down the street and talked to them for at least 45 minutes. Then they were free to go, the woman’s death deemed an accident. Her mistake: trying to cross a dark street in the middle of the block.
As a crowd gathered, a couple came from the apartment house across the street. Managers of the building, they identified the body and said the woman had just said goodbye to her invalid mother, a tenant in their apartment house.
The female manager started sobbing. Her husband put his arm around her. For a long time I stood outside the yellow tape and looked at the sheet-covered body. Mostly, I just felt numb inside, wondering who this woman was.
Not just a nameless, faceless statistic on the city‘s traffic-accident rolls, Maria Luisa Forester, the 66th pedestrian killed on Los Angeles streets this year, was someone’s daughter, mother and wife. On December 16, she would have turned 59. Last Sunday, one week after her death, Al Lester, 39, sat down with me and talked about his mother.
“She was born in Madrid, married an Air Force officer, our father, and emigrated to Sacramento in 1959,” he said. “My mother had polio meningitis when she was young, and the disease left her deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other.”
Al said his mother never let her disabilities slow her down. “She taught herself English and assimilated,” he said. In 1964 their house burned down, and the family lost everything in the fire. His father died shortly after that, and his mother, Al and his younger brother, Richard, moved to Santa Monica.
There, his mom took a job at Crescent Bay Convalescent Home. “She started out cleaning bedpans. Then she became a nurse‘s aide, an LVN and finally a registered nurse. Not only did she raise us, but she also cared for her aging mother,” Al said.
In 1977 she married David Forester, and together they bought a convalescent home in the Valley, which they had just sold for their retirement fund. “My mother had driven over to feed her 85-year-old mother, and was heading home when she was hit and killed.”
I did not sleep much for three days after the accident. I kept seeing flashbacks of this woman’s face as well as the other bodies I‘ve seen in my life. I felt a deep-down sadness. As a reporter, I’ve seen plenty of human tragedy, covering cops, courts, gangs and corruption. I‘ve also covered the L.A. riots and the war in El Salvador.
But when I’m working, there‘s a switch inside me that automatically clicks off the emotions. It gives me some small distance from the trauma and sadness that I regularly encounter. From what I’m told, the same thing happens to cops, paramedics, firefighters, ER personnel and soldiers. Believe me, it‘s the only way we can do our jobs and stay sane.
This was different. I was home. The idea that someone could die on my street bothered me. And it incensed me that better street lighting might have prevented her death. I put up a cross at the spot where Maria Luisa died and posted a sign urging people to call Councilman Joel Wachs to demand more streetlights. No one at Wachs’ office has returned our phone calls. Passersby have left flowers and candles, creating a shrine that still stands in her memory.
Maria Luisa Forester will not be forgotten. I doubt the city ever will get around to improving the lighting, but I owe it to her to at least try.