BURLINGTON - A recent catastrophic car-skateboarder crash that dropped its victim at death's door has prompted Burlington boarders to question the safety of city streets, the rules of the road, and police response to the accident.
The under-reported collision occurred at the corner of Pearl and North Willard streets in Burlington on July 3. Shortly after the city's annual holiday fireworks display at the waterfront, former University of Vermont student Patrick Klepacki, 22, and four fellow riders skated down Pearl Street. Burlington resident Will Deming was at the head of the pack when Klepacki struck a vehicle turning left onto North Willard from Pearl Street. "I looked back and no one was coming," Deming says of the moments immediately following the collision. He picked up his board and returned to the busy intersection. "I go up and I see my friend Pat. He was in the intersection still and wasn't moving," Deming says.
Klepacki, whom local skateboarders say had returned to Burlington from Connecticut to visit college friends and participate in a local longboarding event, suffered a torn aorta, a fractured femur, and other leg and arm injuries. Following heart surgery at Fletcher Allen Health Care, he was transferred to a hospital in Connecticut. Messages left with Klepacki's family were not returned as of press time. According to Deming, Klepacki's heart is beating with the help of a pacemaker and is "comparable to that of a 65-year-old" for the damage it sustained in the accident.
Police reports say the skateboarder struck the vehicle, but Deming argues there is more to the story. "I didn't get any support from the local authorities," he says, noting that about five Burlington Police Department cruisers arrived on the scene that night. Although Deming did not witness the collision, he said those who did told him the driver of the car did not use a turn signal. (Seven Days is not releasing the name of the driver because he was not charged by police.)
Deming is also angry that police chose not to perform a field sobriety test on the driver and did not interview all the skaters who were there. "We remained at the scene until the last cop left," Deming says.
Deputy Chief Mike Schirling, a spokesman for BPD, acknowledges that a field sobriety test was not performed, but says the driver was properly evaluated and deemed sober. "There would only be a field sobriety test done if there was an indication the driver had been drinking," Schirling says, adding that testing drivers without a cause for suspicion is an invasion of privacy. Random sobriety testing is "not something we have lawful authority to do."
Schirling also says that police interviewed seven witnesses to the accident, including one of the skaters. "If they didn't see the collision, we would not ordinarily interview them," he explains. The official investigation concluded, "The driver didn't actually hit the skateboarder, the skateboarder actually hit the car."
Deming disagrees that Klepacki was to blame for the accident, reiterating that the driver didn't use a turn signal. In addition, he says, Klepacki's experience on a skateboard and his ability to "slide" is a factor when determining cause. "Sliding" is the term skaters use to describe how they come to a stop. Most skaters wear safety gloves with plastic in them, which allows them to quickly slow down or stop by dropping down and dragging their hands on the ground in trouble situations. Klepacki, Deming insists, is a master at sliding. "There is no doubt in my mind" he would have been able to stop if he saw a turn signal, he adds.
According to Schirling, there is no mention of a turn signal in police reports. And he suggests the driver may not have seen Klepacki because he was not wearing protective gear at the time of the accident. The skateboarder was also dressed in dark clothing, was wearing no reflective gear, and was in a crouched position at the time of the crash. "We don't determine fault with motor-vehicle accidents," Schirling notes, but adds, "If there were tickets issued, they would go to the pedestrian." In other words, Klepacki.
After police left the accident scene, the driver of the vehicle approached the group of skateboarders, according to Deming. "All I really remember is the first thing he said: 'I want you guys to know this isn't my fault.'"
Update: Less than two weeks after the July 3 collision, as reported by Seven Days and other media, skateboarder and Ridin High owner John Van Hazinga sustained a serious head injury while longboarding down the Smugglers' Notch Road. He is still in a coma at Fletcher Allen Health Care. You can follow his progress on his family's blog,