COOPER TOWNSHIP, Mich. – They called themselves “The Chain Gang” – a group of bicyclists drawn together by zest for their sport, physical fitness and love of the outdoors whose day trip in the southwestern Michigan countryside ended tragically as a pickup truck plowed into them, killing five and injuring four others.
Stunned biking enthusiasts joined relatives and friends of the riders Wednesday in mourning them – leaving flowers, a commemorative “ghost bike” and a small wooden cross at the crash scene and gathering by the hundreds for a 5-mile “silent ride.”
“We’re all part of a community and this community needs to feel safe on the roads,” Sheila Wood, an organizer of the ride, told the crowd of cyclists before they took off from a brew pub in nearby Kalamazoo.
Police said they had received complaints about a pickup being driven erratically and were searching for it minutes before the crash around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday on a two-lane road in Kalamazoo County’s Cooper Township.
The driver, a 50-year-old man who fled but was caught by police shortly afterward, remained in custody Wednesday. County prosecutor Jeffrey S. Getting said he expected a report Thursday from the sheriff’s department and other agencies that would help determine whether charges would be filed.
The prosecutor identified three of the bicyclists who were killed as Debra Ann Bradley, 53; Melissa Ann Fevig-Hughes, 42; and Suzanne Joan Sippel, 56, all of Augusta. The two others who died were Fred Anton “Tony” Nelson, 73, and Lorenz John “Larry” Paulik, 74, both of Kalamazoo.
Three others were listed in serious condition and a fourth in fair condition at area hospitals.
“There is no way to measure the grief we feel,” said Renee Mitchell, president of the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club.
Mark Rose, who co-founded The Chain Gang about 15 years ago, said its members weren’t “hardcore,” but biked regularly for the exercise, enjoyment of being with friends and the “safety in numbers.” He said he dropped out several years ago to focus on running.
“They were just casual cyclists who enjoyed the ride,” said Rose, 58, of Galesburg, who participated in Wednesday’s memorial ride wearing a shirt with a Chain Gang logo.
Sister Pam Owens, pastoral associate at Saint Thomas More Catholic Student Parish, said Nelson and Paulik were congregation members who were in “great shape” and had a well-known passion for cycling. Their group was 5 miles into a planned 30-mile ride when they were struck, she said.
“They were doing what they loved to do, and they were together. The family took solace in that fact,” said Owens, who visited the crash site Tuesday night with the men’s wives.
Nelson and Paulik also were devoted parishioners. They and their spouses helped lead a program that introduced newcomers to the Catholic faith, Owens said. They frequently helped people who had money troubles; Nelson assisted them in filling out tax returns.
Sippel was a science data manager at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station and was married to a faculty member there, said Jason Cody, a university spokesman.
Biological Station director Kay Gross described Sippel as a “valued and cherished” colleague who affected many people for the better through her work, “enthusiastic support for bike riding and educational activities in the community.”
As people streamed past the location of the fatal collision Wednesday, some kneeled in prayer.
“Ride on, friends, on the roads of heaven,” one mourner wrote on a card left behind.
Bob Coffman, who said the force of the crash sent one of the victims’ bicycles into his yard, placed the small wooden cross at the scene. A neighbor, Marc Laning, applied white paint to the “ghost bike” and attached it to the cross with a bungee cord, a gesture of respect to bicyclists killed by motor vehicles.
Some cycling advocates said they hoped the tragedy would inspire motorists to be more tolerant.
“Unfortunately, Michigan still worships the automobile and not everyone is yet comfortable with sharing the road with cyclists,” said Ethan Alexander, founder of the Kalamazoo-based group Open Roads.
Gov. Rick Snyder issued a statement of condolence to the victims’ families and the community on Wednesday. The Kalamazoo area still is dealing with the aftermath of the random fatal shootings of six people and wounding of two others in February. Jason Dalton, 45, is charged with murder and attempted murder in that case. His attorney told a judge Monday that Dalton is expected to enter an insanity plea.
“What we already know for certain is that Michiganders as a family are in mourning today as Kalamazoo struggles to understand another senseless tragedy,” Snyder said.
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