By Joy Bergmann
Kira C. clearly remembers the moment when Jessenia Fajardo drove an SUV through a red light on West End Avenue at 98th Street, striking her and fatally injuring Alfred Pocari, 62, on the afternoon of July 19, 2019.
“I felt burning pain as my pelvis cracked in four places. Then I must have turned so she had a chance to shatter my sacrum before I went flying 25 feet in the air,” recalls the fiercely private Kira, a healthcare practitioner in her 60s who’s lived on the Upper West Side for over 30 years.
Kira briefly blacked out while airborne, coming to after landing “like a cat.” Though bleeding from a head wound, she remained conscious and heard several voices.
One voice was Fajardo’s. “She was repeating ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry’ over and over,” Kira said. Kira would later come to doubt the sincerity of this apology given Fajardo’s criminal history — including a hit-and-run just two months before this crash.
Kira then heard another voice. “It said, ‘I love you my darlings. I’ll be with you forever. If you need me, look up in the ylber.’” Ylber means rainbow in Albanian, Alfred’s native tongue but not one of the six languages Kira speaks.
“I’m a woman of science, not woo-woo. But I believe I saw Alfred’s spirit leaving his body and that he wanted me to carry this message to you,” says Kira, looking at Milda Pocari, Alfred’s 31-year-old daughter, who joined our recent conversation about the reverberating impact of the crash.
[In a WSR interview, Fajardo said she did not see Kira or Pocari before hitting them. She admitted to being unfocused while driving, but denied using her phone or texting before the crash. However, during her bail hearing, prosecutors testified that “Ms. Fajardo was on her phone as she was driving through the intersection.”]
Milda and her brother lost their father. Triplet toddlers lost their grandfather. Residents of 785 West End Avenue lost their beloved doorman. Extended family lost their connector; Alfred was the one who always made the catch-up calls. His widow Elvira had to take a second job to make ends meet, but nothing makes up for losing what Milda calls “their time.” “They worked so hard to raise us. My brother and I were now independent and they could focus on what they wanted to do together. Travel, go to the opera, dream about a relaxing retirement in Greece or Albania or New York,” says Milda. “I had just been talking to him about a trip to Spain. The next day he’s brain dead.”
It was while Alfred languished on life support that Milda sought out Kira. She knew there was another victim lying somewhere in the same hospital and felt compelled to connect. Frank, Kira’s husband and partner since 1984, welcomed Milda into her room. A sisterhood that began in sorrow now clearly fortifies the women, committed to seeing their shared tragedy transformed into positive change, starting with victims of vehicular violence being treated with the same concern — and rights — as other crime victims.
In December, Fajardo pleaded guilty to Manslaughter in the Second Degree and Assault in the Second and Third Degrees. She is expected to be sentenced on April 2nd. According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the DA had been recommending the maximum sentence, five to 15 years; the judge had offered a promised sentence of two to six years.
“I’m not a vengeful woman,” says Kira, “but two to six is ridiculous for killing Alfred and maiming me. I’m serving a life sentence in an injured body.”
Kira spent four months in hospitals and rehabs, undergoing five leg surgeries lasting six hours each. Her vigilance to be “my own best patient” helped her recognize and beat two major MRSA infections. She credits her crash survival to being a longtime athlete and yoga devotee. “After I was a human projectile, I landed with my weight evenly distributed. I knew my legs were broken, but my hands and brain were fine.”
The enduring toll, however, is far from it.
Her stamina is shot. She’s in constant pain, requiring medication she loathes. She needs a cane to manage a halting walk, and sitting for long is untenable.
Though both Kira and Alfred had health insurance to cover medical expenses, Fajardo’s uninsured status meant no settlement funds for lost wages, let alone pain and suffering.
“I used to joyfully work with patients for 8, 10 hours every day. Now I need help pulling a pie out of the oven,” says Kira. She used to earn eight times the amount she now receives in disability payments, and spends “tons of money” on private transportation because public transit is now “out of the question,” she says. Kira hopes to return to work someday. For now, her family is doing OK financially. “We are luckier than most. We’re able to live on Frank’s income.”
Rather than rue their losses, the women are focusing on preventing future crashes by tackling an expanding wish list.
“I want to rename that corner ‘Alfred Pocari Way’ to honor his memory and get people to be conscious of what happened here,” says Kira. “To be mindful, to say a prayer and remember to be careful toward each other.”
The duo has been collaborating with activist group Families for Safe Streets and Dana Lerner, mother of Cooper Stock, a 9-year-old boy killed by a taxi driver just one block south of the Pocari crash site. Milda is gathering the required signatures here for memorial street signage and will be submitting the application to Community Board 7.
Next, Kira wants a big “Slow Down: Speed Limit 25 mph” sign erected at 96th Street and West End. “People come racing off the [West Side] highway. It’s got to stop.”
They’d also like to see the law changed wherein if a driver’s auto liability insurance expires, the driver’s license would be automatically revoked until proof of insurance is provided.
Further, they want repeatedly negligent drivers to be stopped from driving before tragedy strikes. The City Council recently passed the Reckless Drivers Accountability Act which forces drivers with more than 5 red light camera violations or more than 15 speed camera violations within 12 months to take a safe vehicle operation course or risk having their vehicle seized. Milda doesn’t think that goes far enough, believing repeat offenders should lose their driver’s license until they understand the possible consequences of these actions. “People need to treat their cars like the weapons they are. They’re just like a loaded gun,” she says.
Neither woman has an ideal sentence in mind for Fajardo, now 40. According to court documents, Fajardo gave this statement to NYPD at the crash scene, “I didn’t see them [Kira and Alfred]. I’m going through a lot, my apartment burned down last week in the Bronx. I’m living with my mom. My child’s father is in prison for vehicular manslaughter, he’s serving five years. I was on West End Avenue because of all the traffic on the highway.”
“I can’t put a number on how much time she should serve,” says Milda. “But for someone who hit a pedestrian in May, then hit two more people in July, killing one and severely injuring another, it needs to be enough time for her to reflect on what she did and learn a lesson. I don’t know if she has.”
Whatever happens, they do know they’ll have each other.
“My grandmother always taught me to look for the gold. To be an alchemist in your life, transform the bad stuff, find the gold, whatever it is,” says Kira. “Finding Milda, having her be part of my life, being my friend, is part of the gold. That’s a gift.”