Hays bicycle crash victim was former Pittsburgh firefighter

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When Jeffrey "Zeke" Zietak took the bike ride that would end up killing him, it was only because his car was in the shop.

Mr. Zietak, 57, of the South Side was a veteran Pittsburgh firefighter who retired after 25 years and then started a career anew as a delivery driver for Pittsburgh Mailing.

After his car stalled the other day, he sent it to the garage to await a new part and then picked up a used bicycle at a yard sale for the 40-minute commute to work on Streets Run Road from his Wharton Street home.

But Friday afternoon, as Mr. Zietak made his way down Baldwin Road in Hays without a helmet for the first leg of his commute, he collided with a car around 4:18 p.m.

An autopsy on Saturday showed he died from skull and spinal fractures. The manner of death was listed as accidental.

Sgt. Daniel Connolly, who oversees accident investigations for the city police, said preliminary information shows that Mr. Zietak was going the wrong way -- inbound in the outbound lane of the 700 block of Baldwin Road -- and the driver was going the right way.

"Bicycles are supposed to go with the flow of traffic," Sgt. Connolly said.

Several elements of the incident have turned this bicycle-vs-car crash investigation into something not quite so straightforward. For one, "Witnesses said it looked like he was riding like he had never ridden a bike before," Sgt. Connolly said.

For another, Mr. Zietak's wife, Sharon, said her husband called at 4:11 p.m. and left a message on their home answering machine while she was at the supermarket.

"As he was holding the phone I guess somebody stopped. He said, 'No, I'm trying to get my wife on the phone. I got pushed off the road.' And he sounded fine," Mrs. Zietak, 51, said. "He didn't even sound distressed on the phone. It was so clear."

Mrs. Zietak said she believed the phone call was made after the accident. But Sgt. Connolly, who was aware of the call, said it happened before the collision that killed Mr. Zietak. That, he said, indicates there might have been another incident or accident preceding the fatal one.

Sgt. Connolly said investigators will look into whether drugs or alcohol were a factor.

Mr. Zietak grew up on the South Side, graduating from the former South Side High School. He was in the Marines from 1974 to 1979 and the next year joined the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire with his high school classmate Michael Mullen, who today is the bureau's deputy chief.

"He was a people person. He was very generous with his time with people, he was generous with helping people do projects around their house. He was just a friendly guy," Deputy Chief Mullen said.

For 25 years Mr. Zietak worked as a driver out of the Engine No. 10 station house on Allequippa Street in Oakland. But after Ebenezer Baptist Church on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District collapsed in March 2004, killing two firefighters and injuring 29, Mr. Zietak's days on the job were numbered.

"He was on the other side of the tower when the bell tower fell in. His truck was right on the outside of that," said Mrs. Zietak, his wife of 31 years. "I just said to him, 'Enough.' "

Mr. Zietak retired at the end of 2005 as a master firefighter. But about four months later he went to work as a driver for Pittsburgh Mailing, delivering coal samples from West Virginia mines to laboratories for testing.

He also worked as a merchandise concessionaire for Aramark at Consol Energy Center during Penguins games and some concerts.

When Mr. Zietak's car broke down, the fit former firefighter opted not for a rental car but for a healthy way to commute. He bought a bike at a yard sale but not a helmet.

"I said, 'We've got to get you gear,' " Mrs. Zietak said. "He said, 'I know. I'll go out this weekend.' He said, 'The brakes are a little weird on this one.' I said, 'If you like it, we'll buy you a new bike and helmet.' "

Mr. Zietak had been riding the bike to work for three days when the accident occurred. Since then, his wife said, her house has been flooded with phone calls. She said she did not think the brakes caused the crash; they worked but needed a tune up, she added.

On Saturday afternoon the guys at Engine 10 were sitting around swapping Zeke stories -- none that they would repeat for print.

"We loved this guy and we can't put in the paper half the stuff he did here. He was an original character," Battalion Chief Keith Bradley said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Zietak is survived by a son, Justin, of Brookline and a daughter, Ashley, of the South Side.

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Jonathan D. Silver: 412-263-1962, jsilver@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @jsilverpg."/> First Published July 13, 2013 11:15 AM


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