Accident in Rambala, Panama

Filed under: Panama — Aaron and Amy at 3:39 pm on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

We left Sergeant Major Vila on the temporary U.S. Army base near Chiriqui Grande and were headed to the beautiful islands of Bocas del Toro in the Caribbean Sea.  Shortly after we turned onto the road to Almirante, there were two bicyclists on the right hand side of the road several hundred yards apart, going the same direction we were.  Just as Aaron has done for the last 15 months of driving in Latin America, he veered to the left giving the bicyclist plenty of room.  This put us in the middle of the road, but there was no oncoming traffic so it was safe to give the bicyclist as much space as he needed.  We continued driving down the road at our speed of about 35 mph when it happened.  In the blink of an eye, the man on the bicycle made a sharp left turn to cross the road without looking.  He turned in front of us and was immediately struck by the RV.  Aaron slammed the brakes to the floor but it was too late.  After the impact he hit the windshield and then landed on the ground.  As soon as he turned in front of the RV, the shock of what was happening overwhelmed us.  Aaron stopped the RV as quickly as he could on the right hand side of the road, put the hazards on, jumped out of the RV and ran to the man lying on the side of the road in the grass.  His head was face down and he was not moving.  His bicycle was further down on the same side of the road.  We scrambled for our cell phone, but realized we didn’t know the local emergency number.  We stopped the first vehicle that appeared but it was a semi truck and he didn’t know the number either.  I ran behind the RV to slow down and then stop the first car to appear traveling in the same direction as us.  He knew the number so Aaron called it immediately.  The local also got on the phone to make sure the ambulance knew exactly where the accident happened.  We had just left Sergeant Major Vila and were within a mile of his base.  Aaron immediately called Sergeant Major Vila and told him we had just hit a bicyclist and that we needed help.  We didn’t know yet whether or not he was dead or alive.  Sergeant Major Vila said he would send the military ambulance right away.  By this point several locals had shown up and we went back to the body.  We didn’t want to touch him because of possible spinal cord injuries.  One of the locals took his pulse and told us he was still alive.  Shortly thereafter the military drove by in their humvees, not realizing the accident they were looking for was the RV and the white people that were just on their base.  After realizing this they doubled back and immediately cleared the road and began medical care for the victim.  More locals came and eventually the local ambulance showed up after the military had been working on the victim.  Soon after the military ambulance arrived, Sergeant Major Vila came to the site as well.  As the soldiers took us away from the scene to complete a written statement, Sergeant Major Vila shouted to them, “You take care of them. OK?”  We each produced a written statement of what happened, including all our contact information.  We continued to do this several more times for each of the organizations that showed up to take care of the accident (traffic police, national Panamanian police and a group of civil protection). The military ambulance took the victim to the base and prepared to have him transported to the city of David by helicopter.  The traffic police were very official taking all their measurements of the scene; the location of brake skid marks, the bicycle, the body, and where the RV stopped.  Aaron was working with them the whole time, telling them the sequence of events again and again, making sure everything was clear.  We don’t necessarily believe that anything bad would have happened if the U.S. military wasn’t there; but in this very stressful time where we were involved in an accident and the victim might not survive, it was extremely comforting knowing that we had the U.S. military, (with high ranking officials) right there with us on the scene of the accident; making sure that we were not taken advantage of by local authorities.  It would not have been possible for anyone to take advantage of us or misconstrue information with the military present.  The military stuck with us basically through the entire ordeal.  The military helicopters were grounded because of bad weather so they were going to transport the victim by humvee ambulance to the city of David, several hours away.  Voices crackled across the military radios about the condition of the man.  Sergeant Major Vila stood there on the black pavement in the hot sun and told us the man probably wouldn’t make it.  Our hearts sank and I felt nauseous.  Only moments later, the radio crackled again and Sergeant Major Vila quickly said they had gotten him back and his blood pressure was a promising 80.  Our relief didn’t last long, as the final call came through shortly thereafter.  We clung to one another as we heard that the man did not survive.  As another level of shock set upon us in the middle of this tragic accident, we realized we had to start thinking about what the repercussions may be for us; the foreigners who were involved in an accident that resulted in the death of a local.Trying to reassure us, several soldiers repeatedly informed us that there was a witness that said he saw what happened and that it corroborated with our statements.  They also told us several times that it seemed like the traffic police and national police were all in agreement that it was not our fault and there was nothing we could have done to avoid the accident.  At the scene of the accident the military encouraged us to stay with them on their base for the night.  They wanted us on their property to make sure nobody suddenly changed their minds about detaining us.  At that point the national and traffic police said we needed to follow them to their police station to complete the paperwork.  We followed them in the RV, with one traffic policeman with us in the RV.  I stayed in the RV while they sat Aaron down in the office, consequently placing the bereaved widow in the seat next to him.  The man was 23 years old and left behind a wife and two children; ages 1 and 3.Aaron waited for quite some time in the police office, and finally a senior traffic policeman that was not a part of the initial investigation wanted to take Aaron back to the scene of the accident to reenact it all over again.  While they were gone a man came up to me in the RV asking what we were doing here in Rambala and how the accident happened.  I told him we were here to do volunteer work with the Army and explained the accident.  He then informed me he was from a newspaper in the city of Changuinola and to call him if we needed anything.  I thought he was a sneaky sucker and couldn’t imagine what we would need from him.  As he left, Aaron and the policeman returned to the police station.  While I waited for Aaron inside the RV, some of the deceased family started congregating at the police station and waited for about an hour.  A female policeman came to tell me they were going to hold Aaron inside the office until the press left, then he would return to the RV and we would stay on police property for the night.  They wanted us to stay there and even took our key so that we wouldn’t drive away in the night.  They said we would be guarded at night and that if we needed to cross the street to the supermarket, to notify them and we would have an escort so that locals couldn’t start any problems.  The same female police officer commented about the man’s family as they walked by the RV.  She said whenever there is an accident, all people are looking for is plata (cash).  She agreed when I said, “And we’re gringos, so it’s going to be worse.”Aaron returned to the RV and we got situated for the night; they even allowed us to put water in the RV from their spigot.  Everyone was very cordial, considering the circumstances.  Aaron called Sergeant Major Vila to let him know that the police wanted us to stay there for the night, and that we could not stay on the Army base.  Sergeant Major Vila said that he could come to the station and tell them that we would be in his custody and he assured us the police wouldn’t refuse to let us go with him.  Aaron thanked him profusely, but acknowledged that he believed they were extending us a courtesy by letting him sleep in the RV with his wife and not in a jail cell; and that Aaron didn’t think it was necessary for the US Army to come and throw their power around the police station.  Sergeant Major Vila understood, and then proceeded to ask if we wanted him to pick us up and take us to the base for dinner, returning us to the station that night.  Again, Aaron thanked him but declined the offer; thanking the Sergeant Major emphatically for all their help and assistance that day.  About five minutes after Aaron hung up the phone, Sergeant Major Vila and some of his men were at the RV door with two trays of hot dinner from the base mess hall, and a box full of packaged food and water!  We couldn’t believe how much the Army was taking care of us, and were so thankful we had met Sergeant Major Vila minutes before the tragic accident occurred.  All day they expressed genuine concern for us and made us feel welcome to stay with them on the base.  That night we reviewed the events of the day and talked about how we were feeling.  A similar incident happened in Nicaragua when Aaron’s sister Emily and her husband Kris were visiting.  We were driving a smaller, more maneuverable rental car and were able to avoid an accident.  A bicyclist was riding on the same side of the road as we were driving, Aaron gave him his space, and without looking he turned left immediately cutting in front of us.  Aaron was able to maneuver the car and slam on his brakes, leaving us sideways in the street as the man scrambled out of the way with what seemed like hardly inches to spare.  The streets are a dangerous place in Latin America, as they are narrow and are full of pedestrians, bicyclists, ox carts, animals, small motorcycles that can’t keep up speed, speed bumps in the middle of the highway and buses that stop in the middle of the Pan-American highway to deal with passengers.  We don’t know how or why these two men didn’t look over their shoulder before crossing the road.  We don’t know if they don’t hear traffic and they think it is clear, or if they are so comfortable on the road they just forget.  When we had the accident in Panama, there was another bicyclist a ways in front of the one we hit.  The other one crossed the road way in front of us, and the man we hit attempted to cross shortly thereafter.  Aaron wonders if maybe the victim saw the other guy cross the road and thought there was no traffic, therefore deciding it was clear and didn’t need to look first.  It was a difficult emotion to deal with, but in a way we felt angry that the accident happened.  We know we were not at fault and there was nothing we could have done.  It was the fault of the bicyclist, and his carelessness that cost him his life.  But by making the choice to cross the highway without looking, he immediately involved us in his careless decision. During that day and into the evening we had a horrible desire to not go outside.  We weren’t worried for our safety, but we didn’t know how to behave.  We didn’t know who knew about the accident and what they were thinking of us.  If we went out (to the store or dinner) and greeted locals as we normally do with a buenas tardes (good afternoon); if they knew about the accident would they wonder why we weren’t being more solemn?  On the other hand, if we kept to ourselves and did not offer polite greetings, maybe they would think we are rude gringo tourists; and then later they would find out it was us that hit the local and they would say bad things about the rude gringos.  As people walked by the RV parked at the police station on their way to the supermarket, they would peer at me sitting in the RV, or look at the outside of the rig.  We didn’t know if they were just curious about the RV like everyone else on our trip in Latin America or if they knew about the accident and were thinking bad things about these gringos who killed someone from their village.  We decided it was easier to just stay inside and wait out the night.The morning after the accident we were supposed to wait for someone to come and inspect the vehicle, the scene of the accident and let us know whether or not we were free to go.  Before the inspection the man told Aaron in broken English, “Do not worry, you go today.  No problems”.  When he inspected the vehicle with Aaron, it seems it was more out of curiosity for this strange truck, than anything having to do with the accident.  I sat inside the RV while Aaron walked around the RV describing what every single door, vent, latch and hose was for.  During the inspection, a man in nice enough clothing and carrying a briefcase appeared and started poking his nose around.  While I finished some chores, I tried to hear whatever I could.  As soon as I heard this new man say with a worried, solemn face, “This doesn’t add up.  This doesn’t match with the drawing the police made”; I quickly stopped what I was doing and listened more intently.  Bottom line was this; Aaron was agitated by his presence and comments, and he asked the man what he was doing there.  He asked if he was representing the family.  No.  Well you are not representing me, so I don’t need your assistance or comments.  When Aaron asked him what didn’t match, he proceeded to ask whether he was an expert.  It turns out he was a lawyer, claiming to represent the three indigenous tribes of the area.  Basically he said if Aaron paid him, he will go back to court and to the family and let them know that it wasn’t our fault and that it was the fault of the bicyclist.  If Aaron did not pay him, he would have to tell them it was our fault and they should pursue a monetary reward in a civil suit.  Aaron reiterated what he said in plain English making it clear he understood he was being asked for a bribe, and the man quickly said that wasn’t the situation.  The man told Aaron to watch how he spoke to him, and that he could go down to the office and place a lean on our vehicle and get the family to go after us.  The man left (in a taxi no less) and Aaron promptly told the traffic police and the man doing the inspection what happened.  They both brushed it off and said, “Did you do anything wrong?  No.  Then what are you worried about?”  Since the head of traffic police and the man responsible for letting us go that day were not worried, we assumed that’s what we had to believe as well.  We just hoped this guy wasn’t going to stir up more trouble that we didn’t need.  We had actually already discussed giving the wife some money, but we didn’t want to be forced to give it to her.  We hoped the lawyer would stay out of it so that we could set up some kind of trust allowing her to have a little money each month so that it would actually go to her kids’ school and food.  The last thing we want is to give her money to help with the loss of her husband’s income and then have her friends and family mooch off her.After the inspection was complete, we drove to the city of Chiriqui Grande to look at the report and make sure we understood everything in it before signing.  We requested a translator, but he spoke less English than we spoke Spanish.  That and the fact that most of the report was a detailed listing of all propane, refrigeration, spare tire and extra welded parts; it turns out we didn’t need his services.  The inspector said we were free to go, and that they would call us (on our Panamanian cell phone) if they had any additional questions.  They asked us to please call them before we left the country, and sent us on our way.  We drove back to the Army base where they welcomed us with open arms and showed us where we could park for the night.  We spent the afternoon chatting with many different military personnel, telling them the story of our trip and also discussing the accident since most of them knew about it.  They all enjoyed the dogs as we walked them through the base, reminding them of home and their own dogs.  We ate both lunch and dinner at the food stalls that had been set up just outside the gate to the base.  There were also souvenir stalls for the soldiers to buy trinkets from Panama, since they were not allowed to leave the base on personal leave.  Our time at the base gave us some much needed time off the road to calm down after the accident.  Everyone who knew about the accident asked how we were doing, what the results were, and gave us their condolences.  They also appreciated that we were here to do volunteer work, and what a horrible accident to happen while we were trying to do some good in the community.  The morning we left the base we had breakfast in the mess hall with Sergeant Major Vila and some other soldiers.  They sent us on our way to the islands of Bocas del Toro and would try and find some volunteer work for us to do when we returned.  We would also like to help the family with any minor repairs, but we are not sure they would be receptive to our help; or treat us in a manner that would make us want to stay.  If they were to treat us in a manner of blaming us for the accident, we wouldn’t be able to help them.We left the base that morning for Bocas del Toro, turning down the same road where the accident had occurred two days before.  We were a bit nervous to be back on the road dealing with pedestrians and bicyclists.  We never know when the next one may turn in front of us without looking.  The mountain curves and my stomach’s nerves made me nauseous.  I was quite happy to leave the RV in Almirante and spend some time being active without having to drive the RV on the roads.  I’m sure my anxiety will lessen, but at that point I welcomed the time away from driving in the RV. After the islands and working on the school, we stopped at the construction site of one of the clinics the Army is building along the highway back to the base.  While we were there I spoke to a Panamanian national policeman.  He asked what had happened with the accident, and what the results were.  I told him that they had said we were free to go and are not being held responsible.  He was very happy to hear that we were not going to be held responsible and have to deal with anymore problems.  He was also shocked that this was our first accident while driving in Latin America for 15 months.  It was a great moment to share with one of the national policeman.  He was sincerely happy that we weren’t continuing to have problems with the situation.  It was a perfect conversation that shatters so many horrible false stories about Latin American police.  Other than Nicaraguan traffic cops trying to get bribes, we have never felt anything corrupt, hostile or unfriendly from policemen in any country we have been in.We called the District Attorney’s office (the people who had inspected the RV) and spoke to the District Attorney.  He said he needed us to come in and give another official declaration of the accident events.  The declaration was quite comical.  The secretary was supposed to be taking a dictation of our account of the accident.  She spent about an hour obtaining and slowly typing information such as where Aaron went to high school, the description of the clothes he was wearing that day in the office, and a description of his tattoos.  We asked why this was pertinent to our declaration of the accident and she said “We are supposed to record any pertinent information that may be used to identify you.”  We smiled and let her proceed with her questions and I bought all of us cold refreshing drinks.  We figured the declaration was kind of like the insanely detailed inspection of the RV.  They were taking advantage of the opportunity to get as much detailed information as they could about these unusual tourists, our incomprehensible trip and a house on wheels that most locals have never seen.  (It is actually illegal to get tattoos in some Central American countries, which could also explain that curiosity).  She was typing on the oldest typewriter I have ever seen and typing both of our declarations took over 3 hours.  Before signing the declarations we read what she had typed, which was not actually a dictation.  She had so many typos we left most of them as they were, only correcting the important ones.  They said we were free to go and that we no longer needed to call them before leaving the country.While we were in the islands, one of the Panamanian national police looked into the possibility of setting up a trust for the family from the accident.  We do not feel responsible for the accident, but are capable of helping the family and would like to see the kids go to school and have clothes and food.  Aaron went to the bank in Chiriqui Grande to set up an account where the family would receive a little money each month, instead of a lump sum.  Along with him were two Panamanian national policemen and the widow.  The police thought very highly of us for giving the family money even though we were not at fault.  They seemed to genuinely understand that we had a great concern for the welfare of the mother and her children.  The police and the bank staff made a great effort to educate the widow about the account that was being set up, and how she should take out small amounts when necessary to pay for her and the children’s necessities; and that the money was not to be given to friends or family.  She didn’t seem to understand during any of the times it was being explained to her.  She is an indigenous woman (not of any Spanish descent) that lives in a clapboard shack with her extended family where most people have no shoes and not enough food to eat.  She had never been in a bank before, and didn’t understand what to do with this piece of paper that said she had $100 in the bank (she expected cash).  She also seemed thoroughly confused by the promise of the additional $100 we are going to deposit on a monthly basis for the next year.  She claimed to want to withdraw all the money that day, which caused the police to ask her why she felt she needed such a large amount of money and gave her another lesson on how to use the money.  At one point a policeman told her that it was a tragic accident, but she should take advantage of the fortunate situation she was now in, buy some land and build a home for herself and her kids.  The police said they would talk to her again, to try and educate her on the best way to use the money for her children.  Aaron is also going to talk to another group called Civil Protection and see if they can try and talk to her on a more personal local-to-local basis, to convince her to use the money wisely and not blow it on extended family and friends.We consider ourselves responsible travelers and always hope the footprint we inevitably leave behind is a positive one.  Therefore we would like to do the best we can to leave a positive footprint in Panama through our volunteer work and helping the family monetarily.If you are reading the posts in chronological order, please now return to the log entitled “David to Bocas del Toro and back to David, Panama: March 8-29, 2007”.  The travelogue resumes after the accident on page 4, the paragraph marked with two asterisks.


Comment by John Halkyard

March 28, 2007 @ 5:13 pm

Hi Aaron and Amy,

Thank you for sharing this detailed story of the tragic accident and your experiences. We always wonder what would happen in a case like this. We would like to make this story available to our readers..can we post the link on our website to share the story with others (we would not copy this, just link to it)?

We were told several times by gringos living in Central America that the solution to situations like this, in the absence of insurance and litigation as we have it in the states, was simply to pay money to the family of the victim. One person told us a human life was worth $5000. It seems less than that to the indigenous people. We were told if you had an accident like this to give money and high tail it. It seems your approach is exemplary, the idea of distributing small amounts of money over time brilliant.

Interestingly, when we were going over the mountains to Chiriqui Grande, the same route you took, we came upon an indigenous family in need of transporting an ill girl to the local hospital. We served as an ambulance on that occasion. It was a positive experience for us to be able to help.

On an unrelated note we had the pleasure of meeting Liesbet and Mark a few weeks ago, they came to dinner at our house. It is nice to meet our readers! Hope we can do the same for you one of these days!

Hope you’ve had the last tragedy on this trip.

John Halkyard

Comment by Momma

March 28, 2007 @ 8:02 pm

WOW….WOW….WOW!!!! What a beautiful job you did with this post. I feel like I was right there with you the whole time.
Just want you to know how very proud I am of both of you. I’m sure Amy’s parents concur. It says so much to the kind of people you are….fine, generous, compassionate, sensitive and caring…and full of love for each other.
I sure wish that you had not had that tragedy to mar your otherwise wonderful trip, though.
Sending much, much love….

Comment by Jimmy Clarizio

March 29, 2007 @ 7:37 am

Aaron and Amy,

You two did the right thing behind a tragic event.
I am proud of you both. It must have been scary for you both. I hope that we have a chance to talk soon.
You always have a home here with us in Bacalar.
Jimmy and Jacqui

Comment by Justin Davis

March 29, 2007 @ 7:41 am

I don’t really know what to say, other than you did a wonderful job relating events… I also feel like I was there.

It seems that the situation could have been much worse for you; your sincere enjoyment of other people seems to have been fortunate, especially with your military contacts there.

I cannot imagine the heartache that this family is going through, I am proud that you are trying to do something for them. I hope that you continue to do it as long as your fortunes are as good as they are!

You are living a spectacular adventure, and this just reconfirms how quickly life can be turned upside down. Continue to enjoy it, hopefully other reading this post also will take a moment to be thankful for their fortunes. There is always going to be somthing you want to be better, but just a quickly, and often more easily, things can become a lot worse, often tragic.

Thank you for sharing this terrible event, please continue to love life and the people you meet!


Comment by todd sand

March 29, 2007 @ 11:08 am

Dear Aaron & Amy,

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first time that I have been to your website as I don’t spend much time at a computer. All I can say is that I am glad that you two are the wonderful, caring people that you are. This accident was a terrible life event, but your compassion, love, and intelligence (mental and emotional) are parts of you.

Take good care of each other. Enjoyu the adventures that life sends your way.


uncle Todd

Comment by Lana Jackson

March 29, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

Hi Amy & Aaron, I have been looking for your website and Marc called today to tell us what happened in Panama. Wow! What an experience! (By the way I’m Taffy’s mom-in-law) You’re pics and writings about your adventure are the greatest reading. I just found a list of my “100 things I want to do before I die” today. I realized I have only done 35 of them so far. Good luck and God bless you two on this great adventure, and be careful!
Daryl & Lana Jackson

Comment by Sally and Art

March 30, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

Oh Aaron and Amy,
What a sad, sad story, and what a jumble of emotions. Your account did indeed have us reliving the event and its aftermath with you. You handled it all so well, it’s an honor to know you. How much you have learned and experienced since the early days of your adventure in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico! We think of you often as we travel the underside of the world, finishing NZ, heading for Australia.
With love to you both,
Sally and Art

Comment by April Whann

April 3, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

Dear Amy and Aaron,
It sure sounds like you went through alot but you handled it well and your concern and generosity says so much about who you are.
I know the rest of your journey will be wonderful and I look forward to seeing you when you pass through Nicaragua again.
Be safe.
Much love,
April and Brandon

Comment by Command Sergeant Major Vila

April 4, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

I would like to thank you for being part of our family. We as Americans always learn lessons, 9/11 taught us the true meaning of friendship. As we continue to fight the war on terrorism, is it peaople like you and Amy we do it for. I would also like to thank you interacting with the service personnel on the Base Camp. You are always welcome. Stay safe and keep in touch.

Your Friend
CSM Vila
Task Force CSM
New Horizons = Panama

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