Pittsburgh cyclist still has drive after hit-and-run that nearly claimed his life.
Fran and Bud Yablonsky walk with their son Dan, 23, down a hall Monday at the HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital in Indiana Township. Dan Yablonsky was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in May while riding his bicycle.
Dan Yablonsky, 23, speaks with the Post-Gazette from HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital Monday as his mother, Fran, left, listens and his father, Bud, center, takes a phone.
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A bicycling enthusiast through and through, Dan Yablonsky has ridden in places that mere mortals would shy away from -- the streets of New York City and Denver and across the Western Continental Divide.
He is now on a journey far longer and more arduous than any of his bike trips. On May 13, Mr. Yablonsky, 23, was run over while cycling on Liberty Avenue in Lawrenceville. The driver of a Jeep fled the scene, leaving Mr. Yablonsky, as he put it, "mangled on the ground."
Police found the Jeep and the remnants of Mr. Yablonsky's bike, which the driver had yanked out of the vehicle's undercarriage some distance from the crash. An investigation continues, and criminal charges are likely.
Another thing is likely, according to Mr. Yablonsky: When he has recovered from injuries that shattered him from head to toe, he will resume his pursuit of a career as a bicycling advocate.
"Now I know the stakes," he said in an interview at HealthSouth Harmarville Rehabilitation Hospital in Indiana Township. "Now I know the stakes of having a safe environment [for cyclists]."
After graduating from the University of Vermont, Mr. Yablonsky came to Pittsburgh in February on a fellowship from the Student Conservation Association that placed him at Bike Pittsburgh. He worked on the group's Bike Friendly Employer program and Car Free Fridays initiative. He used his bicycle as his principal means of transportation.
On the night of May 12, he rode from his home in Larimer to Bloomfield to be with friends. They sang karaoke at Nico's Recovery Room, a bar, then headed for the Strip District for an after-hours party. Mr. Yablonsky said he was sober and, as always, wearing his helmet. His bike's lights were on.
As he cruised down the hill on Liberty toward where it meets Ligonier Street and Herron Avenue about 2:30 a.m., the Jeep, coming the other way, turned left at Ligonier into Mr. Yablonsky's path, hitting him head-on as his friends biking and driving nearby watched in horror.
"I don't remember headlights. I don't remember an impact. I don't remember phone calls [to 911] or police lights," he said. "The next thing I can call to memory is a couple weeks later, being in the hospital."
"He was unconscious for three weeks," said his father, Bud.
He suffered a ruptured aorta, dislocated elbow, arm fractures, broken wrist and finger, fractured sacrum (a bone at the base of the spine) and pelvis and several breaks to the bones in his legs. His legs are scarred from abrasions and skin grafts, and his right arm remains in a sling.
Every doctor who has seen him has told the family that Mr. Yablonsky's helmet saved his life. Medics found it cracked, with the chin strap broken, but still seated properly on his head.
"For the first week, he was heavily sedated and we didn't know if he was going to be here," said his mother, Fran.
After numerous surgeries at Allegheny General Hospital, he moved to the rehab center in mid-June. He uses a wheelchair, endures constant pain and is building toward a milestone this month -- being able to stand without assistance.
The Yablonskys praised Pittsburgh police, who arrived at the crash scene almost immediately and have kept them informed about the progress of their investigation. They have a suspect.
"Damage to the bike and the Jeep fit like two pieces of a puzzle," said Pittsburgh police Sgt. Daniel Connolly. Trace evidence from the scene is being processed at the crime lab.
Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, said there has been a recent spate of hit-and-run crashes here involving bicyclists and pedestrians.
He noted that the state Legislature recently approved a bill increasing the penalties for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
The crash involving Mr. Yablonsky "is emblematic of a bigger problem. I think our lawmakers are seeing that this is emblematic of a larger issue as well," Mr. Bricker said.
He described Mr. Yablonsky as "thoughtful, reliable and creative. He has the makings of someone who will be very successful at convincing people that how we design our streets and how we treat people needs to change."
Mr. Yablonsky, his voice still throaty from the breathing tube he needed after the crash, said he will return soon to his hometown in New Jersey to continue his rehabilitation. He intends to come back here in the fall to resume his work at Bike Pittsburgh, his aspirations intact.
"If anything, it's made them more personal," he said.
As his dad said, "He's got skin in the game."
First Published July 5, 2012 12:00 am