The instant he heard the collision, shortly before 9 p.m. March 9, John Kulakoglu sprinted into action.
At one moment, the 24-year-old was standing outside the Empire gas station where he works, on Route 58 in Riverhead. The next, he was darting toward the road while calling 911 through his phone’s Bluetooth earpiece. He could see a mangled motorcycle in the road and the car it had just struck. But there was no sign of the motorcyclist on the darkened street.
“I knew the person driving the car was obviously inside the car, so common sense is — Where would the motorcyclist be?” Mr. Kulakoglu recalled.
Somewhere, he could hear a man groaning.
The motorcyclist, retired New York City firefighter Bill Esposito of Peconic, had been eastbound on Route 58 when an unlicensed driver with no insurance pulled in front of him to head south on Oliver Street. Mr. Esposito couldn’t avoid the 2006 Ford sedan. His motorcycle struck the car’s right front quarter-panel, propelling the 60-year-old nearly 30 feet into the air. He landed in the eastbound roadway on Route 58, according to an accident report filed by Riverhead Town police and Mr. Esposito’s wife, Nancy.
A nearby security camera captured the moment of impact, Ms. Esposito said.
Within 40 minutes of the accident, thanks to the rapid response of Riverhead Ambulance volunteers and a medevac helicopter, Mr. Esposito was at Stony Brook University Hospital, where doctors began assessing the grave injuries that his family said will alter his life forever. His case casts light on the limited liability currently faced by unlicensed drivers responsible for serious injuries to other motorists.
“[The driver is] off scot-free and my husband is lying there clinging to whatever and his life is going to be changed forever,” said Ms. Esposito, a nurse at Southampton Hospital. “The unfairness of it is what really at this point bothers me the most.”
The driver of the Ford, a Riverhead man whose date of birth was not listed on the accident report, told police through an interpreter he failed to see the motorcycle, according to the accident report and Ms. Esposito.
The driver, who was not seriously injured, was issued citations for three violations: driving with no license, driving with no insurance and failing to yield the right of way, according to the accident report. The driver provided police with a Riverhead address, but was driving a car with Tennessee plates, according to the accident report.
(Top Photo Caption: Bill Esposito, a retired FDNY firefighter, with his son Billy, now 19. The accident occurred at Route 58 and Oliver Street on March 9)
Accidents involving unlicensed drivers are not uncommon across the state, according to data compiled by the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. Between 2011 and 2013, according to the most recent data available, an average of 9,124 citations were issued each year for motor vehicle crashes involving an unlicensed driver. That averages out to about 25 per day across the state.
Over the same period, an average of 2,926 citations annually were issued for an uninsured driver in a motor vehicle crash.
Legislation was introduced in Albany in 2013 to crack down on drivers who operate vehicles without insurance or misrepresent where their vehicles are operated by using out-of-state plates. The bill, introduced by state Senator Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), would have created stiffer penalties, such as amending the current first-degree forgery law to also make it a felony for a person to submit a false application for motor vehicle registration or insurance.
The bill passed the state Senate in 2014 but stalled in the Assembly.
Ms. Esposito said a representative from her insurance company drove past the address listed for the driver who hit her husband and spotted two other vehicles in the driveway, both with South Carolina plates.
“They’re not held accountable,” she said.
While Riverhead police did not respond to several requests for comment on this story, Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said in most cases his department has seen, drivers with out-of-state license plates cannot obtain insurance or a valid driver’s license and are not in the country legally.
“These drivers also represent the highest number of drivers that leave the scene of an MVA or run from an officer trying to stop them for any type of offense,” he said in an email.
Chief Flatley said he thinks that over time, as these drivers remain in the U.S. longer, there’s been a “slight increase” in their efforts to obtain valid registration and insurance.
In the initial moments after the March 9 crash, as he discovered Mr. Esposito lying on the pavement, Mr. Kulakoglu could sense the severity of his injuries.
“I looked and it was just bad,” he said 10 days later. “I still can’t get that out of my head and I still have nightmares about it.”
Mr. Kulakoglu found himself alone in the street, hovering above Mr. Esposito. He worried traffic might continue driving in their direction.
“I was trying to stop people from going because God forbid they don’t see him,” he said.
He kept imploring Mr. Esposito not to move.
At Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance headquarters on Osborn Avenue, less than a mile and a half away, several EMTs heard the initial police call come in and instantly recognized the potential severity of the situation, even though details were scarce: motor vehicle accident with a motorcycle.
Lisa Fitz, a six-year volunteer, drove out the first ambulance, with Lt. Chris Fleming trailing in a second ambulance. Ex-chief and vice president Bob Bork, a 15-year veteran, drove a first-responder vehicle.
“Basically it was responder and ambulances nose to tail all the way down 58,” said Mr. Fleming, who’s also in his sixth year as a Riverhead EMT.
The team arrived within two minutes, each ambulance parking strategically in the road to further block traffic along with the police cars on scene.
They found Mr. Esposito wearing his helmet, a leather jacket, heavy jeans and boots. The temperature had dipped into the mid-40s, but Mr. Esposito was bundled up, which likely helped lessen the blow from the crash, the EMTs said.
“He was a smart rider,” Ms. Fitz said.
Mr. Esposito was conscious and alert and could communicate with the paramedics. While that was a hopeful sign, the EMTs knew there was the potential for serious internal injuries, which couldn’t be fully evaluated until he got to a hospital. The EMTs quickly determined that he required a Level 1 trauma center, which meant transporting him to Stony Brook University Hospital. Lt. Fleming called the Suffolk County Police aviation unit. A helicopter was stationed in Westhampton at Gabreski Airport. The aviation unit gave the first responders a 10-minute estimated time of arrival. The EMTs loaded Mr. Esposito onto a stretcher and into an ambulance to transport him to a nearby landing zone. Ms. Fitz drove, and by the time she arrived, she said, the helicopter was already preparing to land.
“He was talking to us the whole time,” Lt. Fleming said. “When we were talking to him in the back of the ambulance, he was very friendly, telling us about his family. You wouldn’t have known [his injuries]. He was a real nice guy.”
Mr. Esposito kept asking for someone to call his wife. That job fell to Mr. Bork.
“She was able to give us some of his medical history,” he recalled.
Ms. Esposito soon learned her husband had suffered numerous fractures throughout his body and was bleeding internally. Hospital officials would later tell her it was the “worst fractured pelvis they’ve ever seen,” she said. One surgeon said Mr. Esposito was at “death’s doorstep,” his wife added.
“It was life-threatening, very touch-and-go for the first 12 hours,” she said. “I sat with him the whole time in the unit.”
After about three weeks in the hospital, Mr. Esposito was transferred to a long-term rehab facility, his wife said. Her husband’s insurance covers medical expenses, but out-of-pocket costs are adding up. A recent doctor’s visit in New York City required an ambulance transportation at an expense of $1,600, she said. Their home will eventually require renovations to accommodate his disability. He still needs two additional surgeries — on his right foot and left knee.
Mr. Esposito retired as a firefighter shortly after 9/11. He survived thyroid cancer that developed as a result of his rescue efforts at ground zero, his wife said.
In his leisure time, he loved riding motorcycles. On the day of the accident, he was riding an ’03 Indian.
Stan Brzezinski has been close friends with Mr. Esposito for nearly 30 years. They were both firemen, first at Ladder 124 and then at Rescue 2 in Brooklyn. Mr. Brzezinski suffered a similar tragedy in Florida recently, when he was cut off on a highway while riding a motorcycle. He broke his leg, ankle and ribs, among other injuries, he said, but still fared better than Mr. Esposito.
“My wife had called [Mr. Esposito] that day and he got in his truck and drove straight down,” Mr. Brzezinski said. “He was here the next day. Good friends.”
When Mr. Brzezinski got the call about his friend’s accident, he knew it was his chance to return the favor. They spent about two hours together at the hospital shortly after the accident, he said, and Mr. Esposito appeared in good spirits.
Mr. Brzezinski and his wife, Diane, soon hope to spearhead fundraising efforts for Mr. Esposito and his family to help offset their rising costs. The family is waiting for Mr. Esposito to get further into his recovery before heading down that path.
“He’s a great guy,” Mr. Brzezinski said. “He’ll do anything for you.”
WITH NICOLE SMITH AND PAUL SQUIRE