My name is Stephanie Ruland Hembach. I was raised in Upstate New York along with my brother Ken. My life changed on March 5 of this year when my dad was killed in front of my husband and me at Bike Week 2006.
I remember that my father always had fast snowmobiles, cars, and motorcycles. He passionately loved machines. My father spent most of his days tinkering in the garage or building and modifying his things to make them work better. I always admired my father, because he could literally fix anything. My dad had motorcycles all of his life, I can remember when he rebuilt an old Harley that belonged to his cousin Bill. It was a fully dressed Harley and dad rebuilt it to make it look more like a Fat Boy, and this was about 30 years ago. I had my first bike when I was about 7; it was a Kawasaki 75. One of my fondest memories was that of last year when I went to New York to visit my parents. A few years ago I took the motorcycle safety course, and wanted a bike to ride so my husband bought me a 1981 BMW R100. My father didn't think it was good enough bike for me being 25 years old and wanted me to have my mother’s 2004 Sportie. One day he asked me if I wanted to ride. I was skeptical at first, because of the hills and turns in upstate New York as opposed to the flat straight roads in Florida. Reluctantly I said OK and took my mom’s bike for a ride while dad drove his FXDX. I remember when we got home I told him that it was one of the best days of my life; he smiled and hugged me, and said he loved me as he always did.
One of Dad's best times was when he won the Brute Horsepower Shootout in Daytona 2002. He had his friend from upstate New York increased the horsepower of his FXDX to 102 from the stock 60-hp without boring out the cylinders. He was so proud of that win. I can still remember him calling me several times from Daytona telling me how close he was to winning. The other participant wouldn't let the judges tear his motorcycle down to see if he cheated, and my dad won. We still have his trophies, hats and the Corbin seat that he won with great pride. My father was also a great family man. Throughout my life when I needed advice I would call Dad and he very logically would set me straight. I miss that; it seems I need him now more than ever. My father has
six grandchildren. I have twins and my brother has four girls. He was a wonderful grandfather. My brother’s second daughter was devastated because she never got to ride the motorcycle with PopPop, like her older sister. My father was also a wonderful husband to my mother; they were married for 41 years when he was killed. It breaks my heart to know that she no longer has him to count on, to fix things or just to know that he will be home. I know that she's lonely. Dad also left behind his black lab Otis who longs for him to walk through the door. Otis is doing fine, but is definitely a man’s dog and misses my father dearly.
My story starts when I decided to buy my mom’s Sportie. My mom had the bike for about a year when a friend of my parents was killed on his Road King. My mother is an ER nurse and was working the night he came in. She lost her passion that night. My parents were going to trailer the bikes down for Bikertoberfest, but weren't able to come at that time. Our very close friends and my parents then decided that Bike Week would be the time they would come to Florida. My father was so excited he had his winter tires on the car months before the actual trip. My parents arrived the Thursday before bike week; our friends arrived a few days later with the bikes in tow. Thankfully my father was able to see my son’s very first T-Ball game. I remember his laugh when my son ran toward the woods instead of running to second base when the ball was hit. When our friends arrived the bikes were unloaded and washed. Everyone got a good night’s sleep and were ready to ride the next day. It was Sunday. My husband ironically didn't want to go to Daytona, but we wanted our friends to have the experience that we already had. My mom stayed home to baby-sit the children. We arrived at the Broken Spoke Saloon and walked around a bit looking at some bikes. We then headed south to the Harley dealer off of 95 and US 1. My father was getting the itch to get a new bike and was looking at Road Kings. If he were alive today I know he would be riding one. We walked around and had lunch. We decided to leave early and on the way out walked by a few bike builders, one being Jessie Rooke. I had him sign a poster for me and without reading it rolled it up. Anxious to get home we then left the area and got back to our bikes. I put the rolled up poster in my dad’s saddlebags and we were on our way.
There was a lot of bikers and traffic. I told my husband to let dad lead and he did. We then quickly came upon an intersection that was clearly not marked well. The speed limit on US 1 is 55 mph, but we had slowed down to 35 mph. Just then I saw a motorcycle pull in front of my dad. I remember thinking what the hell are you doing, and know my dad was thinking the same because I saw him brake harder. Right behind the motorcycle was a white van.
The fear I felt when I saw that makes me sick to my stomach. It too pulled right in front of my father. I remember seeing smoke from the tires, and then I closed my eyes, I couldn't watch what I knew would happen to someone I love so much. My poor husband had to see everything because he had to safely get us around the accident. I remember riding by my dad and seeing him lying on the road, a little further up was his bike leaking transmission fluid all over the road, a smell I will never forget. We stopped the bike and I jumped off and threw my helmet to my husband, then ran to my dad. I immediately knew that I wanted him to be dead. I have seen too many people like that with my job as a nurse. All I wanted to do was protect him from anyone who wanted him to be alive. Just by looking at him I knew he wanted to be dead also. I lay on his belly and wailed, begging people to let him die. I was taken away when the EMTs arrived. I remember them yelling, “he has a pulse,” and putting oxygen on him. Our friends who were about 15 minutes behind us then drove up on the accident recognizing my father’s saddlebags and then my husband’s bike. I remember looking up and seeing a face I knew, I felt some relief. It was like looking at an angel. Our friends asked what happened, and I just said, “It’s dad.” My dad’s good friend said to me "He will be okay." I said, “No, I don't want him to live like this.” The EMTs continued to tell me that they must do everything. I begged them not to. I know now that it’s their job, and thankfully he died not long after. Some fellow New Yorkers took us to the hospital. She was a nurse and said to me, “Let’s get you there so you have control over the situation.” That made sense to me. Finally a little sense. My husband and I left his bike chained to a tree in front of the White Eagle Bar. I wasn't about to get back on it, and at that time didn't care what happened to it. Our friends rode back to our house which took about 1-1/2 hours. They said it was the longest ride they ever took. I needed them there to be with my mom while I was at the hospital. When they arrived, my mom immediately asked, "Where's Dean, Grant, and Steph?" With that my cousin started to cry and mom knew one of us was in trouble. They told her it was my dad, her husband of 41 years. I had to wait at the hospital until my friends were with my mom. My mom called me on our cell phone and asked if dad was dead. All I said was, “Yes, mom,” the phone dropped, and I heard my mother getting sick. Our neighbor had to pick us up at the hospital.
Finally about four hours later we arrived home. I didn't want to see my mom because I didn't know how to deal with seeing her in such pain. The next few days were a blur. The day after dad died my brother arrived from New York. Being an investigator, he switched into work mode. We visited the accident scene, which was appalling to my brother. He said the intersection was horrible. We also went to look at the bike. My brother and I then viewed what we could of my dad, one last chance to say goodbye and that we loved him so much. The following day he was cremated and my brother flew back home with him. He is now on his workbench in a box made by our close friend Jeff. My mother opted to see nothing, her way of dealing with the loss. We had a so-called Irish Wake instead of a funeral. My dad was a member of the Eagles, he had served in the Army for four years, and over 400 people attended, reassuring us how much people loved him. I saw people that I hadn't seen in years, and will probably never see again. It was a wonderful night. Movies played of his life and people talked, drank beer and honored my father. I was proud.
I have had to think about motorcycle safety so much more. I have analyzed his situation over and over in my head with no outcome, except the outcome that was. I think when it’s your time it’s your time. I also realize that there are things that you can do to make yourself a safe rider. I would never ride my own bike to a large event such a Bike Week. People aren't paying attention, roads are crowded and roadways are unsafe. I think a major factor in the death of my dad is that Daytona couldn't handle the traffic, and more consideration needs to be taken during these events. Roadways need to be updated to handle the populations. Flagler County is the fastest growing county in the country. We need something done to accommodate the traffic on the roadways. People need to be more aware of bikers; they don't seem to look for them, just run in front of them. Education is essential.
Insurance in the state of Florida needs to be increased also. The person that pulled in front of my dad had only a $10,000 policy--$10,000 or the life of someone you love, you do the math. I am not angry at the person who pulled in front of my dad; they are dealing with incredible grief also. I blame the intersection, lack of traffic control, and the fact that people don't pay attention to motorcycles. Florida has a no fault law. It is crazy that if someone dies at the hands of the state it’s not their fault. I also realize that people who have bikes can make themselves more visible to drivers. Three headlights, blinking tail lights, anything to bring attention to your bike. My father wasn't a fan of chrome. He liked simple and black.
Looking back I wish his bike was bright orange and full of chrome, five lights in the front and a blinking helmet. Not a realistic scenario for my dad, but maybe it would have saved his life. I take with me that my dad died doing something he loved, and I'm grateful he chose me to be with him. I miss him terribly, but I know he lived a good life, was never sick and died with dignity, and for that I am grateful. If you’re riding please be more aware of other vehicles, intersections, and make sure that the other person sees you, especially while driving in the state of Florida.
By the way, Jesse Rooke's poster read "Stephanie Ride Forever Jesse Rooke Daytona 2006."