For a cyclist, Sunday, August 4th, 2013, was a perfect summer day to enjoy a ride through Camp Pendleton. The sun was out but not burning too hot, a gentle ocean breeze was blowing, and there weren’t too many cars on the road. Ideal conditions to log quality miles challenging the rolling hills, steep climbs, and open roads of the northern San Diego government military base.
Before German-born Udo Heinz, a 43-year-old cyclist from Encinitas left on his Sunday ride, he phoned his wife and kids in Germany. He and his wife Antje and two children, ten-year-old Jan (pronounced Yan), and Mia (7), had just spent their yearly summer trek in Idar-Oberstein, Germany enjoying time with family and reconnecting with childhood friends. A vice president of commercial products at TUV Rheinland Global Group in San Diego, Udo flew back to the States solo a week early, to get back to work. While apart from his family and separated by a nine-hour time difference, Udo stayed in touch, Skyping with them twice a day.
That Sunday night, Antje and the kids wanted to talk before they went to bed, about 9 p.m. in Germany, 12 p.m. in California. During their video conversation, Udo and Antje spoke of the kids and the fun they were having and of Antje’s plans to return to San Diego in less than two days. Before they hung up, Udo said, “I’m going for a ride. I’m going to do my Pendleton route,” a route he often did to avoid the heavy congestion that moves onto the roads in San Diego during the summer months.
With over 290 bike trails and several paved rides that run over 50 miles, Camp Pendleton is a popular place among many avid cyclists. The base has less traffic, fewer lights, and fewer hazards such as blind corners and large semis. It’s quiet on the base; tranquil, even. Riding in Camp Pendleton was especially safer during this time of year. As a husband and father of two young children, safety was Udo’s highest priority. Udo wished the kids and Antje a good night’s sleep and spoke of reconnecting when they woke up in the morning.
Udo loved to ride bicycles. Getting on his road or cyclocross bike was still his favorite pastime. Udo began participating in triathlons when he was 14. He inspired others to join him swimming, biking, and running and even joined a youth triathlon team where he met his wife when they were just 15 years old.
Before leaving, Udo tucked his driver’s license into his brightly colored blue “Ranchos Cycling Team” jersey. He wore his “Ranchos” jerseys often. He was proud to be a member of the Encinitas team known for promoting cycling, active lifestyles, and community service. Every rider must have valid identification before being allowed to ride on Pendleton, and many slip their identification in plastic baggies and pocket them in their jerseys.
Udo rode from Encinitas to Pendleton, just 14 miles from home. At his pace, that was just a 45-minute ride. He entered the base at the southernmost entrance, Cristianitos Road. His pace quickened and the miles began to tick gloriously by. There was no one at home except his dog Alley; he could ride as long as he wanted.
Along Stuart Mesa Road near Cook Crossing and Vandergrift, he joined two other riders, Steven Scharf and John Edwards, both riding at the same pace. They chatted a bit, and as the wind picked up, they began to take turns “drafting,” a common practice used by experienced riders in which the lead rider plows through the wind, which aids the cyclists following immediately behind.
Despite the occasional car and North County bus whizzing by, they rode in perfect harmony, each rider knowing when it was time to pick up the pace or leapfrog to the front. The road was mostly empty. There were no oncoming northbound cars on the horizon. And even though there were few cars on the road, the cyclists hugged the right side.
Cyclists pay close attention to the California Vehicle Code. Their lives depend on it. A thin, nylon, dry fit jersey and bike shorts are no match for steel and cement, and most experienced cyclists have had falls resulting in road rashes, hematomas, and broken bones. It comes with the territory.
The California Vehicle Code specifically states bicyclists have the same rights as motor-driven vehicles. It says that people who ride bikes must ride as close to the right side of the road as safely practical except when passing, preparing for a left turn, avoiding hazards, if the lane is too narrow to share, or if approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.
Udo and his new cyclist companions were riding on a shoulderless stretch of a two-lane road, between two low-lying heavy guardrails. Signs indicated the bike route, set the maximum speed at 45 mph, and reminded cyclists to ride single file. They were hugging the shoulder, drafting, following the rules, and reveling in the strain and pull of their pedals, the strength in their legs, and the fresh open air. They came upon a stretch of the open road that drove straight into the horizon, with not a car or a curve ahead of them.
From behind, a North County Transit District bus driven by Gamal Mohamed Hamouda, approached the three riders. With plenty of space on the two-lane road, the three accomplished cyclists forged ahead, in single file, expecting the bus to pass safely on their left.
Buses often drive past groups of cyclists on Camp Pendleton, because there are many bus routes on the expansive base. All North County Transit buses are equipped with cameras that take still shots of the insides of the bus, the bus driver, and the road ahead. All photos are time-stamped. In the images that the six cameras caught on August 4th from within the bus driven by Hamouda, there’s no indication that the cyclists had any idea they were about to be run over.
At 12:49:41, the photo from the bus reveals a completely open straight road with no traffic coming from the opposite direction and three cyclists off to the right of the road, riding single file, in colorful clothing, with a flashing red light attached to the seat of the last cyclist. In the next picture, the bus storms ahead, without the slightest move to the left to avoid the riders. Then, at 12:49:42, the bus slams into them from behind and keeps going.
Edwards was hit first. Udo was hit second. Then Scharf was hit. The impact catapulted the cyclists forward. Edwards and Scharf hit the pavement. Udo was thrown from his bike. His body slammed into the post of the guardrail, flipped over, and landed a short distance down the dirt slope. He was unconscious.
The bus driver kept driving.
Marines in the bus yelled at him to stop. The bus driver hit the brakes without slowing first. A passenger rushed to the scene to perform CPR on Udo. The others frantically called 911.
Ambulances arrived. Udo lay still, lifeless, on the opposite side of the guardrail, away from his completely dismembered bike. Edwards lay writhing in pain and Scharf, the lead rider, did what he could to help, despite his bruised and bloodied body. A life-flight helicopter was called in.
Word spread through the cycling community that there had been a bad accident. No one knew who it was, but everyone knew someone had died.
Antje, Udo’s wife, and his kids were asleep in Germany. They woke to sunny skies, excited and eager to fly home to reunite with Udo. When a few hours passed and Antje hadn’t yet heard from Udo, she didn’t think anything of it. With such a large time difference, he would probably still be sleeping by the time she and the kids woke up.
More hours passed.
Antje waited until it was the early evening in Germany and Monday morning in California. She and the kids called Udo, but he didn’t answer. She left a few messages and went about packing and saying goodbye to her family and friends because they were leaving early the next morning.
By late evening her time, there was still no word from Udo.
A few hours later, she got on the computer. A group email came through from Udo’s cycling club, the Ranchos, saying there had been a bike crash in Pendleton that involved one of their own. Udo, she knew, always wore a Ranchos jersey when he rode, and she knew he was in Pendleton that day on a ride. Antje called her neighbor in Encinitas immediately.
“Can you check the house and see if Udo’s bike is there and if the dog is okay?” she asked her neighbor. Her neighbor checked the house and said the car was there and Alley, the dog “looked happy,” but she couldn’t tell her about the bike. Antje and Udo are both skilled riders who own many bikes; the neighbor couldn’t tell which bike Udo would have been riding.
Antje thought perhaps he was on a lunch ride. Udo often worked from home, so a quick ride at lunch wasn’t unusual. He could have gone out for a spin.
Time passed and still no word from Udo. Antje called his sister, Bettina, to see if she had heard from him. She called his friends.
All night long Antje called every single phone number she could find on the internet for Camp Pendleton. Every unit she called couldn’t tell her the identity of the person in the accident. She knew Udo would have identification on him. If Udo was involved, he would have been ID’d quickly and easily. Antje couldn’t imagine that if someone died their loved ones wouldn’t be contacted immediately. She would have been contacted by now. They would have called her by now.
While Antje called Camp Pendleton, Udo’s sister Bettina, best friend Jeff, and a neighbor called every single person they knew. They tried every angle to get the identity of the cyclist who died on a ride in Camp Pendleton. Someone had to have some information.
Antje’s neighbor asked a family friend, a Marine, to call the base and get any information he could. Perhaps he would have more luck. After making a few calls, the Marine learned that the cyclist who was killed was Udo Heinz.
He made the call to inform Antje’s neighbor, who then called Udo’s sister, Bettina. Bettina told Antje.
Despite their eight-year age difference, Udo and his sister Bettina were very close. When Udo was 17 years old and his sister had already moved out of the house, Udo’s mom died. Then, a year later, his dad passed away. Although not quite ready to be a man, Udo took the role of breadwinner for his extended family, began working, and helped take care of his grandmother. He wanted to. It was the right thing to do. It was his way of honoring his parents.
Bettina called Antje in Germany and within seconds of hearing her voice, Antje knew. She had to get home. She had to get to him. She didn’t know where he was or who was looking after him.
A 20-hour journey from Germany to California lay ahead.
She told her parents and decided to tell the kids once they returned home and she’d gotten all the information she would need to answer their questions. She wanted to make sure it wasn’t a mix-up, a hope she would cling to during the long flight home. But just in case it wasn’t, she had to be prepared. Her 10-year-old-son Jan and her bright, cheerful 7-year-old daughter Mia would have questions.
Antje and the kids returned home late Tuesday night. On the flight home, she still had no idea where Udo was, because no one from Pendleton had contacted her. While Antje traveled home, Jeff, Udo’s best friend, discovered that Udo’s body was brought to the Naval Medical Center, next to Balboa Park.
Early Wednesday morning, Antje and Jeff went straight to the naval hospital. The hospital didn’t know who Antje was. She had to explain the whole story and Antje remembers them saying, “Who, what?” The naval hospital didn’t know if Udo was there or where to find him.
Time passed as Antje and Jeff waited for information in the lobby. The receptionists discovered he was in the hospital, they just didn’t know where. Then hospital staff finally came to them and said, “He’s here. We are going to put him in a room for you.”
It finally became real. There was no mix-up.
“I wanted to see him. I wanted to make sure it was him,” Antje remembers. She waited two hours to see him. Finally, they placed Udo’s body in a small room and brought Antje to him. Udo was under a blanket and his head was showing. Antje recalls, “I could see him. It really was him. The whole time before, I kept thinking it wasn’t him. I kept thinking it was someone else. It was...it was...yeah...very difficult.”
After seeing Udo, Antje learned that after he had passed away at the scene, his body was transported to the naval hospital, where an autopsy was performed. She wasn’t given the chance to think about what she would have wanted done for her husband. Once the autopsy was finished, they placed Udo’s body in the hospital morgue.
When Antje saw Udo, she had to steady herself. She thought he would look like he was sleeping. But he didn’t. His face looked pained. “His eyes were open and dead, and his mouth was open and crooked,” Antje remembers looking away. “Seeing Udo like that is still haunting me every night.”
There were about five people on the bus. “I don’t know the exact count,” Antje says. “I don’t know the details. I heard one ran out and did CPR. I wanted to know who was first at his side. Was he conscious? They all called 911. One of them was CPR-trained. I don’t know his name. He was the first at Udo’s side. He jumped out and tried to feel a pulse and Udo was unconscious. He couldn’t feel one but when the rescue people got there, after trying to revive him, they found one.”
The injuries to Udo’s chest, caused by his collision with the guardrail, were catastrophic. He suffered a collapsed lung and a broken sternum, and nearly every rib was broken. An artery leading into his heart and the protective sac surrounding the heart were torn. He went into anaphylactic shock immediately. A helicopter came, but they did not fly him out.He was already gone.
It was time to tell the kids. “I sat them down and I told them.” Antje held on. Her daughter cried. Her son, “Wanted to escape,” she says, “it just crushed him.” He couldn’t talk about it. But he did want Antje to know this: “I am going to help Dad be the man of the house now.”
Antje wrote a beautiful obituary, beginning with, “Udo Conrad Heinz died tragically on August 4, 2013, while doing what he loved to do. He was taken away from us way too early in a tragic bike accident on Camp Pendleton.”
Antje planned a celebration of life in Del Mar. There were stories and laughter. There were a lot of children playing and two close friends spoke of him. His brother-in-law played his acoustic guitar. Over 300 people attended. Antje didn’t want people to come in black clothing. She wanted them to come in beach attire and to celebrate him and what he loved. People came on their bikes. Antje did what she had to do to get through the day. “It is still a blur.”
Antje and her best friend, Leeann, flew to Germany a week later for another memorial service his sister arranged in his home town. Family and friends there wanted to say goodbye. The kids stayed with friends. This time, Antje didn’t have to be brave for the kids. This time, she could fall to her knees and weep openly.
The first few months were horrible. Thankfully, “Udo and I have very close friends. Everybody pulled together. Without our network it would’ve been so much harder.” They had meals delivered to their doorsteps for three months. Antje and the kids hunkered down. They stayed close to home.
Antje has since made progress from the shock stage. She found a support group. She has reached a point that she has been told is the “acceptance stage.” She believes she is there now. “First I thought, Of course I know he is dead but my heart doesn’t grasp it, doesn’t accept it. It is something I am working on. The kids bring me through the day. I have to get up. It is a blessing, just putting clothes on them. I have to open the next door.” Udo taught her that if there was something she couldn’t change, she had to accept it. She had to make the best out of situations.
“I just persevere. I do one day, one hour at a time.”
Antje never had to think about money, taxes, health insurance, or renewing the car registration. Udo took care of all of that.
“There are 100 things you do as a couple that you don’t have to double-check; like, he knows where the tent is, but I know where the wrapping paper is. I trusted that he knew where everything was. I didn’t have to think about it.” While re-organizing her and the kid’s lives, she smiles as she notices the details and the things Udo had done around the house, remembering he was a “doer and never did things halfway.”
Antje and the kids didn’t have to move out of the house. They stayed in Encinitas, among their friends and their community. “I’m proud of myself. I had to figure everything out. I don’t have him to have my back anymore. I miss that. There was a person who was my best friend, who knew me and loved me unconditionally that is gone. That was one of the hardest things to learn…that I am alone.”
Antje sits in a therapy group now when she can. She remembers their marriage and their friendship. “Udo’s spirit is in me and the kids. I see the good things he left. He made me into a stronger person and I am not going to give that up. I have moments where I crumble but I have to carry on.” And when the days are tough, her kids get her through.
Jan couldn’t talk about losing his dad for awhile, and Mia cried a lot. But each day the kids get stronger. Mia is talking and opening up more and is even interested in cooking again, a favorite pastime she enjoyed with her father. Jan is talking more about his feelings and riding his bike again with boyhood abandon. Antje and her kids go to grief therapy.
Udo’s cycling club, the Ranchos, built a memorial bench for Udo in the hills where the Heinz family rides. She and her son ride there often. Jan prefers going there to the cemetery. Antje does too. “He’s not there. He’s within us.”