Gabriela “Gaby” O’Shea was hit by a car while riding her bicycle on Route 299 near Butterville Road in the early evening of September 11. The 25-year-old New Paltz resident, who worked at The Parish, was seriously injured and airlifted to Westchester Medical Center.
Community members are asking questions about road safety while they are raising funds for O’Shea’s medical bills, which are likely to be astronomical. O’Shea was riding westbound when hit by a red Jeep driven by Amy Ashkenas, 49, in the same direction. The cyclist was thrown from the bike and landed in a wooded area on the north side of the road. The driver walked back to the cyclist, returned to her vehicle and drove away. Ashkenas later turned herself in to the police, who charged her with leaving the scene of the accident.
O’Shea, according to the GoFundMe page set up on her behalf, faced immediate brain surgery and a medically induced coma. Marissa Barrington, organizer of the crowdfunding campaign, wrote, “Gaby is a beautiful 25-year-old woman, strong in spirit, dance, words and deeds. She has a rare soul that you don’t find often …. She and her family are much loved, and we are an awesome, giving, caring community.”
More than $20,000 was contributed in the first couple of hours of the appeal, with nearly $57,000 pledged as of this writing. Two benefits to help pay for O’Shea’s medical expenses have been scheduled, one is a special dinner this Saturday, September 24, at 7 p.m. at The Last Bite in High Falls and the other a concert on Friday, September 30 at 8 p.m. at Bacchus in downtown New Paltz.
Blanca Babits, O’Shea’s mother, expressed her appreciation online. “To all the wonderful people that know Gaby and to the ones that didn’t know about her but still showed love and support, I send my most heartfelt thanks. It is surreal and painful to see Gaby in the condition that she is now, but I believe in the power of love and faith. She’ll be whole again to enjoy life to the fullest!”
According to lieutenant Robert Lucchesi of the New Paltz police department, whether Ashkenas will face additional charges is yet unknown. Police are waiting for the accident reconstruction team to issue a report, he said. They will then confer with the district attorney’s office. He gave no credence to rumors that Ashkenas was in some way distracted or impaired, saying that the evidence had yet to be analyzed.
Concerns about the incident were brought to the joint town-village board meeting in New Paltz last Thursday. Gibbons Lane resident Bob Holzman asked for bicycle lanes. “I’m worried about cyclists on Albany Post Road,” he said. “I only pass them safely.” There are times when a driver only sees a bicyclist when rounding a curve, he said, and is forced to swerve to avoid a collision. “Does someone have to die?” Holzman asked.
Deputy supervisor Dan Torres, who went to high school with O’Shea and described her as “a warm, amazing person,” expressed pride in his community for being able to raise so much money to help O’Shea’s family in such a short amount of time. “I know a lot of the people who have donated,” he said, “and some of them don’t have much.” He called the widespread generosity a testament to New Paltz’s community character.
Road safety along those stretches can’t be improved by town employees, noted town supervisor Neil Bettez, because county and state routes are at issue. Planning board members have been hearing for well over a year that the speed limit along Route 299 west of the Wallkill should be reduced to 45 miles per hour. Achieving that involves approval at town, county and state levels.
County executive Mike Hein is committed to widening Route 299 in particular, said mayor Tim Rogers. Hein brought up the idea while speaking about the replacement bridge over the Wallkill. Materials used to construct the western footing and approach to the temporary bridge will be available for that purpose.
Peter Kaufman, chairman of the New Paltz Bicycle Pedestrian Committee, remembers “promises of shoulders by 2011” from 2003. The date at that time seemed so far in the future. “Now we’re still waiting,” said Kaufman. “I’m not holding my breath.”
“I feel like a broken record,” added Kaufman, who has been on the committee since its inception shortly after the turn of the century. “New Paltz has so much potential – so many projects that seem like no-brainers.”
Wide shoulders along Route 299 would allow cyclists access to Mohonk Preserve and the beautiful riding available just over the Ridge in Accord and Kerhonkson. “The powers that be just don’t see the benefits of creating things like that,” Kaufman said. He looks to Colorado, where bicycle access is a priority, as a model.
Lieutenant Lucchesi said that it would be difficult to focus specifically on bicycle-related infractions with an enforcement effort, because “we don’t know what roads they will traverse.” Cyclists are by legal definition required to follow the same rules as motorists, and given the same deference. Anyone who observes an issue with a bicyclist either victimized or violating the law should be reported for investigation, he said.
Kaufman called what happened to O’Shea a tragedy, and one that’s not far from his mind on his own rides out that way. “From the bridge to the gatehouse, I’m just holding my breath,” he said.
In addition to the online efforts, the Saturday, September 24, at 7 p.m. fundraiser dinner at The Last Bite in High Falls will help pay for O’Shea’s care. For more information, call 687-7779. The Last Bite is at 103 Main Street in High Falls. “The Last Bite is a small-town café with a close-knit local following,” explained proprietor Scott Albright. “Our regulars create the atmosphere, and it is a pleasure having Gaby be a part of that. She is not only consistent with her order — hungry hipster double bacon no cheese — but she is also consistent with the amazing energy that she brings through the door when she enters the shop. Always patiently smiling and seemingly happy to be where she is. Gaby and others like her are the reason I love my job.”
The Gaby O’Shea benefit concert at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 30 at Bacchus will have a $5 to $10 suggested donation at the door (no amount is too large or too small). All proceeds will go directly to Gaby and her medical care. The musical bill for that evening will include Bess Greenberg, Rob & Neenee of The Big Takeover, Upstate Rubdown, Joanna Teters of Mad Satta, and The Vibe Theory. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/2cPbZvk.