Multiple injuries, few answers for Roethlisberger

Four surgeons work for 7 hours to repair facial fractures

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Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Police check out the damaged Suzuki motorcycle that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was riding yesterday.
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Doctors successfully repaired what they said were multiple facial fractures suffered in a motorcycle accident yesterday by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but no one would say how his injuries would affect his ability to play.

The 24-year-old quarterback, who was not wearing a helmet, was in serious but stable condition at Mercy Hospital after undergoing seven hours of surgery performed by a team of four surgeons.

Mr. Roethlisberger was injured in an accident at 11:10 a.m. as his motorcycle collided with a car on Second Avenue near the 10th Street Bridge. Witnesses said his head hit the car's windshield and then struck the pavement.

Dr. Daniel Pituch, chief of Mercy's division of oral and maxillofacial surgery, said Mr. Roethlisberger underwent surgery for multiple facial fractures after being evaluated by the surgical team.

"All of the fractures were successfully repaired," he said.

Dr. Pituch would not elaborate further on the quarterback's head injuries. But he indicated that the quarterback did not suffer any other serious injuries.

"His brain, spine, chest and abdomen appear to be without serious injury and there are no other confirmed injuries at this time," Dr. Pituch said.

Dr. Pituch said he did not expect Mr. Roethlisberger's condition to change overnight.

Dr. Harry W. Sell Jr., chairman of surgery at Mercy, said the quarterbacks' family requested that no other information be released about his injuries and doctors declined to answer any questions at a briefing last night.

But Dr. Sell relayed a word of thanks from his family members.

"The Roethlisberger family extends their gratitude for the support, prayers and well wishes that have been pouring into Mercy Hospital," Dr. Sell said.

Although his injuries were serious, onlookers said it could have been much worse. Witnesses said he twice struck his head -- on the car's windshield and then, after flying over the car, on the roadway.

Indeed, the mood at Steelers headquarters later in the day was "reserved optimism." Steelers team president Art Rooney II said he was praying that "Ben's going to make it all right" after arriving last night at Mercy Hospital.

An earlier statement from Mr. Rooney said everyone in the organization was concerned and that, "So far, we have been encouraged by the early reports from the medical team at Mercy Hospital."

Before going into surgery, Dr. Larry Jones of Mercy said the quarterback was talking, was coherent and was cognizant of the situation.

One Steelers source said Mr. Roethlisberger was in surgery for a broken jaw, an injury that can take approximately seven weeks to heal. The Steelers season starts in 12 weeks.

Steelers fans across the region shared concern about the quarterback's condition while debating his judgment in not wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle, especially since he wears one for his occupation.



Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Signs of an impact can be seen on an automobile that collided with a motorcycle operated by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberer yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

Several fans showed up at the hospital last night to hold a vigil, complete with lawn chairs and a miniature charcoal grill.

A handful of Steelers players also came to the hospital, including backup quarterback Charlie Batch. Coach Bill Cowher came to the hospital about 9:15 p.m. but did not speak to reporters.

The accident scene left little doubt that the late-morning accident in the Bluff involving Mr. Roethlisberger's motorcycle and a Chrysler New Yorker had been horrific. Metal was twisted like licorice. Windshield glass shattered. Blood pooled on the pavement.

In the moments after the accident, onlookers shook their heads in concern. All they could do was hope for the best for the anonymous motorcyclist.

And then reporters arrived and spread the word that the accident victim was someone they all knew. Those who had been there were stunned. Others, who heard the news from the media, made a pilgrimage to the scene where the severely damaged car, demolished cycle, a red hooded sweatshirt, and blood stains gave silent testimony to what had occurred.

Mr. Roethlisberger was riding a 2005 Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle outbound on Second Avenue when a 1996 silver New Yorker driven in the opposite direction by Martha Fleishman, 62, of Squirrel Hill, attempted to turn left onto the 10th Street Bridge in front of the motorcycle.

Mr. Roethlisberger smashed his cycle into the car near the front passenger side. His head crashed into the car's windshield, shattering it and leaving a 6-inch hole. Witnesses said he flew over the car and landed on his head on the pavement. A pool of blood marked the spot long after Mr. Roethlisberger was rushed by ambulance to nearby Mercy Hospital.

A woman who declined to give her name said she saw the accident and ran onto the roadway to help the victim. She didn't know it was the Steelers quarterback until a reporter told her about a half hour later.

"That was him? Oh, my! He did say his name was 'Ben,' " she said, recalling that the injured man knew his name but was so disoriented he didn't know the city he was in. "I told him to lie down. He kept trying to get up."

Others who saw him likewise didn't recognize him because of the injuries he suffered and the large amount of blood that covered his face and head.

Among them was Sandra Ford, a Homewood writer and artist, who had just finished teaching a writing class at the Allegheny County Jail and was waiting for a bus on the Armstrong Tunnels side of Second Avenue. Attracted by the loud exhaust, she noticed a motorcycle approaching from her right ridden by a rugged-looking white man with curly hair.

"He was sailing, like he was enjoying the ride. He was going at a good clip but wasn't going overly fast," Ms. Ford said.

She said as he passed her, she noticed a car turning left in front of him. She said she expected the motorcycle to slow down or even have to slam on the brakes but was blocked from further view by cars traveling inbound. And then she heard a "crunching sound" and saw the motorcyclist fly over the car.

"He was a like a doll someone threw up into the air," Ms. Ford said. "I ran to the scene and he was lying on his back and wasn't moving. I thought he was dead."

And then the victim tried to get up but was calmed down by the unidentified witness and a man who tended to him until medics arrived shortly thereafter. She said she spoke with Mrs. Fleishman who she said told her, "I was watching him approach but he was not looking at me."

Ms. Ford caught her bus but couldn't get the accident out of her mind.

"I felt so badly for that guy. Two seconds can change your life," she said. "And then I get home and turn on the TV and find out it's Ben Roethlisberger and I was really upset then."

Mrs. Fleishman's husband, Martin, confirmed in a telephone interview that his wife was the driver but said the couple didn't want to discuss what happened.

"We really have no statement," Mr. Fleishman said. "We certainly hope everything goes well for Mr. Roethlisberger but we have no other statement. Certainly this is terrible and unfortunate. We hope he has a speedy recovery."

He wouldn't comment on his wife's physical or emotional condition in the wake of the accident other than to say, "She's doing as best as she can."

The car is registered to Mrs. Fleishman and carries Maine license plates. The couple has a summer home in Farmington, Maine.

The city police Collision Investigations Unit is investigating the accident. Both vehicles were towed for further investigative processing. There has not been any determination of the speed of the vehicles and no charges have been filed. The investigation could take several weeks to complete, police said.

Mr. Roethlisberger has been known to ride without a helmet when operating his cycle. Steelers coach Bill Cowher addressed the issue with his starting quarterback in May 2005 after Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow had a motorcycle accident in suburban Cleveland. Mr. Winslow hit a curb in a parking lot and was ejected from his bike, injuring his knee.

"It's one of those things, where he talked about being a risk-taker and I'm not really a risk-taker, I'm pretty conservative and laid back," Mr. Roethlisberger told the Post-Gazette. "So the big thing is just be careful and that's what we do.

"I think every person that rides is careful. That's the biggest thing, I'll just continue to be careful. I told him we never ride alone, we always ride in a group of people, and I think that makes it more safe."

Mr. Roethlisberger's mother, Ida, was killed in a car accident when he was 8 years old.

Throughout the area, indeed throughout the entire Steeler Nation, concerns were voiced about Mr. Roethlisberger's condition as were some criticisms of his off-field decision-making. While a few fans said it was a personal decision, many were troubled by his not wearing a motorcycle helmet. Still others said he shouldn't have been on a motorcycle in the first place, claiming he had an obligation as a professional football player not to put himself at risk.

"The cautionary note is, everyone should wear a helmet," said Dr. Jack Wilberger, chairman of neurosurgery at Allegheny General Hospital. "If he had a helmet on he might have been able to get up and walk away, take the helmet off and be scared to death, but be fine."

While Mr. Winslow's contract forbade him from riding a motorcycle, Mr. Roethlisberger's contract does not prohibit him from riding motorcycles, even without a helmet. The standard NFL contract prohibits risky behavior, but that is not precisely defined. Pennsylvania repealed its mandatory helmet law in 2003.

"I think that's my own discretion," Mr. Roethlisberger said about not wearing a helmet when he rides. "Obviously, Pennsylvania doesn't think people need to."

During an interview last year, Steelers Hall-of-Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw offered one piece of advice for Mr. Roethlisberger about his motorcycle.

"Ride it when you retire. That's the way I feel. Those things are dangerous."


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. Staff writers Ed Bouchette, Ervin Dyer, Joe Fahy, Chico Harlan and David Templeton contributed.


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