I Witnessed a Fatal Bike Crash. It Changed Me Forever.
Earlier this year, journalist Amelia Arvesen participated in a ride for bicycling safety that ended in tragedy. Months later, she’s still figuring out how to process what she saw.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
On May 28, 2021, I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. Ten months earlier, my husband, Steve, and I had relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, in the middle of the pandemic so he could attend grad school at Northern Arizona University. We hardly knew anyone there and were growing lonely, so we were thrilled when a new friend invited us to an event one evening called the Flagstaff Bike Party, a monthly group ride in celebration of bikes and community. It was our first opportunity to gather with new people since our move. When we arrived at a park outside the city’s library, nearly 100 people were there, mounting fixies, mountain bikes, and commuters. A little blond girl giggled on the handlebars of her dad’s bike as he did figure eights in the grass. Some riders wore construction vests and strapped fluorescent orange traffic cones to their helmets to signify the night’s theme: safety.
We were unmissable and buzzing with energy as we started riding around neighborhoods, in circles on the tennis courts, and through downtown. Pedestrians waved and cheered enthusiastically for the return of the beloved event after its COVID-19 hiatus. “Bike party!” we all howled into the cool summer air. An hour into the night, I knew that these were people I wanted to surround myself with. Maybe I’d even get to know some of them better over drinks once the ride ended.
A little after 7 P.M., we reached the intersection of Beaver Street and Butler Avenue, a highly trafficked stretch that separates downtown from the NAU campus. When our light switched from red to green, those of us in the middle of the pack inched forward as the front row slowly pushed into the intersection. I glanced down at my pedal to steady my foot and looked back up, ready to ride.
Then in a matter of seconds, moving into view from the left, a tow truck hauling a Budget box truck careened through its red light. Bicycle wheels rotated under the truck’s flatbed, and there was shouting and honking and someone’s bicycle bell dinging and metal dragging against the asphalt. It was hard to tell how many people had been struck, but I knew immediately it was going to be catastrophic.
About 50 feet away, I stood frozen on my bike with my hands clapped over my mouth in horror. Time seemed to slow. Riders around me ditched their bikes to rush to their friends in the road, but all I could do was full-body shake. Someone eventually shouted for us to get out of the way to allow emergency vehicles through. Sirens screamed. Cyclists panicked. That’s when I grabbed my husband and our friends into hugs. In a daze, we formed a huddle on the sidewalk one block away. We didn’t leave the scene for almost two hours, waiting for any news and wanting to be together. A 12-year-old boy with his new mountain bike joined us to wait for his mom to get him. In tears, he told us he didn’t feel safe to ride home and wasn’t sure if he ever would again.
In the months after, I watched and re-watched two videos from that night, trying to make sense of what happened, wishing I could rewind in real life. The first video, which I filmed at 6:23 P.M., is of riders on the tennis courts, people laughing, and hip-hop music playing from speakers mounted on a bike trailer. My friend is talking about Frisbee golf in the background. The second video is much harder to watch. A driver behind us in traffic had started filming us at 7:04 P.M.—he was in awe of the size of the Bike Party group and only happened to capture the moment of crash. He sent me the video to make sure the police collected it as evidence. It’s only two seconds long, but it shows me and Steve in a sea of other cyclists. It shows the green light and the tow truck. And then there’s the excruciating sound of us yelling “No!” in unison.
That night, five people were seriously hurt and one person died. Her name was Joanna Wheaton. Joanna was 29 and a triplet. She went by Jo for short. She devoted her whole life to helping others, especially underrepresented and neglected people. She passed out warm coats to people experiencing homelessness when it was snowing. She served on the Flagstaff Housing Commission to advocate for housing fairness. She started FlagStats, an independent, data-driven project analyzing social issues in Flagstaff. I could go on. “It’s really beautiful and inspiring to see how she chose to use her gifts,” Jenna Wheaton, the youngest of the triplets, told me months later. She said Joanna was bold in a way that was off-putting to some people, but her intentions were always rooted in empathy for humanity. “She created community wherever she went.”
I had never felt so heavy with grief before. At first, I thought it was weird for me to cry so much about someone I had never met. I couldn’t even mention her name without getting a lump in my throat. But the more I learned about Joanna from news articles and Jenna, the more I realized just how amazing she was. And I couldn’t help but think that we would’ve been friends. She grew up in San Diego, where I was born almost exactly two years after her. She loved the mountains and nature and biking too, and ended up in Flagstaff, just like I did. Why did it have to be her?
I used to work the crime beat at newspapers, so I’ve covered crashes, shootings, bomb threats, deaths, and gnarly court cases. I deal with anxiety and secondary trauma from some of those stories, and I’ve been going to therapy since 2018 to learn how to cope, heal, and regulate my emotions. But I didn’t know what witnessing something so violent would do to my mental health long-term; nor did I know how my body would process the trauma in the days that followed. Nothing I was going through could compare to the wounds suffered by the victims. I requested the investigation reports (which included Steve’s and my testimony and named us as witnesses) and learned the injuries of three of the five cyclists: one person suffered critical injuries to his right leg and pelvis, another person had numerous broken bones, and a third person was scraped and bruised. Yet for the sake of my own healing, I wanted to find out how best to navigate what I witnessed by talking to my therapist and other experts about the healthiest ways to recover and care for myself. I wanted to be OK again.
I didn’t have to look far. In the first few days after the crash, I scrolled through the Flagstaff Bike Party Instagram almost hourly combing for information. I came across a comment from a trauma therapist and licensed counselor in Flagstaff named Dunya Cope. Not only does she have specific training in Somatic Experiencing—a therapy model that focuses on body sensations to relieve trauma—but she was also at the ride that night. “A moment of collective joy turned so quickly into collective horror,” she wrote, before sharing a long list of tips for taking care of ourselves. “Allow your body to find safety when it can, whether around friends and loved ones or just getting to notice your home or an outdoor space,” was one. “Let yourself be in the space with your senses, and check in to see if there is any way that your body notices safety.”
She added that if we’re in shock, there’s no need to try and push ourselves out of it. “Allow yourself to be safe, allow yourself to be held. If you notice any trembling, or any emotional or body impulses, allow yourself the safety to know that your body has wisdom to process and move through what is happening.” If any of us were still seeing horrific images—which I was, whether my eyes were open or closed—she suggested widening our frame to try to remember a tree, a friend, or something else that was neutral at the scene.
“There’s no wrong way to be with this,” Cope told me when we met up in September. We both brought tissues to the downtown coffee shop. “Just let what’s coming out come out. We don’t have to judge it. We don’t have to make it different.”
I tried not to. I cried alone and in front of people without holding back or feeling ashamed. I screamed into pillows until I lost my voice. I spent days curled up in bed in my dark apartment, and I cleared my schedule of plans and chores because it felt impossible to do simple things like eat and shower. While I experienced big emotions, Steve said he felt more numb, like moving through the motions as a zombie. Once we finally had the energy to run errands, we drove through the crash site on the way to the store. Being there again cued more hot, wet tears.
It also prompted outrage—at the tow-truck driver and at other careless drivers. I noticed myself yelling at cars more often and more aggressively. The other weekend on a ride back from the farmers’ market downtown, a 4Runner tried to cut in front of Steve and me as we entered the crosswalk. The driver had a green light, but the pedestrian walk signal was also blinking. Steve gave the driver a sarcastic thumbs up, while I screamed, “Are you fucking kidding me, bro?” Then I flashed him my tallest finger.
I mentioned these outbursts to my therapist when we met for the first time after the crash, and she was curious to know how it felt to yell. I told her it made me feel like I had a voice, like I could change someone’s behavior. If they recognized the close call, maybe they’d be more cautious the next time. My therapist told me that anger and yelling in the presence of threat or harm is an appropriate response. I plan to keep yelling.
When it came to writing this essay, I struggled. It felt uncomfortable to hurt so deeply every time I sat at my desk. I kept feeling like my pain didn’t matter or wasn’t important. I felt like, Who am I to write about suffering? To keep crying uncontrollably? I didn’t lose part of my leg or someone I loved. But Cope reminded me, “There’s no monopoly on stories. One person writing about their experience doesn’t take away from all the multiplicity of the other narratives and feelings.”
I keep thinking of Joanna. When I’m riding my bike. When I drive through the intersection. When I run through the sunflower fields at the park. Jenna, Joanna’s sister, told me that she sees her everywhere as long as her heart is open. A praying mantis landed on her neck during their shared birthday and stayed with her for seven hours throughout the day. She’s sure it was Joanna. “She’s always there,” she said. Jenna is a therapist and is working toward a specialization in grief and loss. Her knowledge was comforting. “I’ve been intentionally keeping death near, because to me, life and death are the same. So often, we turn our backs on death and don’t let it alchemize us and transform us.” It cracks you open, she says, but “we don’t need to be scared of what is in that crack because it can be unifying.”
Something profound that I’ve learned through this process is the power of the word “and.” It has changed how I view my own feelings and emotions. They don’t have to be either-or. You can feel many complex things all at once, like deep loss and immense gratitude. You can feel heartbroken and encouraged. Heartbroken over a world without Jo. Encouraged by the way people have comforted one another. “There is no expectation that we have to go back to some earlier version of ourselves before tragedy happens or before grief affects us,” Cope told me. “Is it ever going to be OK that Jo died? No, that’s never going to be OK. But what an amazing thing to expand our hearts and our capacities to bring in the resilience of community and the ways that we come together.”
I feel a stronger connection with Flagstaff now, partly because of having experienced a collective pain with so many others. And partly because of the way the community came together to grieve and show support. Several GoFundMe campaigns surpassed $100,000 goals to fund the victims’ medical expenses, time off work, bills, and whatever else they needed. Businesses created special menu items and donated proceeds from a day of sales to raise money for the fundraisers. People made “Flagstaff Strong” T-shirts and organized vigils for Jo and the other victims. And community members submitted a petition to the city council for more pedestrian and cyclist protections. I’m not sure whether more bike lanes or the newly painted green stripes would have prevented what happened, but it’s a start.
I’m still scared to bike alone and I worry constantly about Steve, who rides through the intersection every day on his way to school. I make him text me once he gets to campus. “Alive!” he writes every time. There’s still an immense amount of individual and collective healing that needs to happen. Then there’s the healing from the physical injuries. None of us are ever going to be the same. But maybe one day, once everyone feels ready, the Flagstaff Bike Party will meet again. If it does, I’ll be there.