The last thing Centreville's John Pezzella remembers was looking at the computer on his bicycle and realizing he only had one more mile to ride before completing the 30 miles he does frequently.
Then a passing car diverted his attention for a split second, and the 47-year-old father of three flew over his handlebars and crashed, head-first, through the rear window of a parked car on Carlbern Drive.
"The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital, looking at the ceiling tiles," said Pezzella, of the Briarton community, near the Route 29/Stone Road park-and-ride lot. "I was in ICU in a neck brace."
The incident occurred last Thursday, June 17, around 12:30 p.m., in the Country Club Manor area of Centreville, near Deer Park Elementary. But luckily, resident Tammy Marquardt was there to help, and her quick actions turned her into a local heroine and saved Pezzella's life.
She formerly worked in doctors officers, functioning as a nurse, but now does child care in her Carlbern Drive home. Right before the accident, she put the children down for a nap, went outside and moved her garbage can from back to front for the next day's trash pickup.
"I heard a crunch, so I looked around and saw my son's gray, 1993 Chevy Blazer and a man laying down on the ground, in back of the car," said Marquardt. "He was on his back on the road, with his bike tangled on top of him."
Amazingly, though, she was perfectly prepared to help him. "I had the phone in my hand as I went outside, because I didn't want it to wake up the kids," she explained. "I called 911 and went over to him." She was also holding a new bag of Pampers — which proved handy for sopping up the blood from Pezzella's wounds.
Marquardt said a car had come up behind him and was passing him. "The only thing we could figure out is that he looked at the car — taking his attention off the road — and drove straight into the back of the Blazer. His head broke through the rear window, and the glass shattered in a thousand pieces."
UNDERNEATH THAT window was the covered, spare tire. When Pezzella hit it, as he flew toward the glass, he caused that tire to come unlatched and swing away from the vehicle. This motion prevented his whole body from going through the window and also propelled him back out the same hole and onto the road.
"He'd turned right to look at the passing car, so the whole right side of his face was lacerated, as well as his upper arms," said Marquardt. "His foot was through the handlebars of his bike." Meanwhile, the girl driving the passing car — Leah Sly, on her way to graduation rehearsal at Westfield High — stopped to help; and, together, she and Marquardt lifted the bike off the injured man.
"His teeth were chattering and I didn't want him to go into shock, so I got a blanket and covered him," said Marquardt. "We got his name from him, and then he became unconscious." His breathing was shallow, and he was bleeding profusely.
"I ripped open the bag of Pampers — figuring you can't get much more absorbent than that — and used them to apply pressure to his head, face and upper arms," she said. "Luckily, he was wearing a helmet. This guy should be the poster guy for bike-riding adults wearing helmets because, if he hadn't been wearing it, he wouldn't have made it."
It was also a good thing that Pezzella was discovered so quickly, said Marquardt, because "he was bleeding so much and wasn't noticeable by people driving by." Within a few minutes, police and an ambulance and fire truck from Centreville Fire Station 38 arrived on the scene, and Pezzella was Medevaced to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
"My daughter's in sixth grade at Deer Park, and her class was having a picnic outside, for the end of school," said Marquardt. "But they all had to go inside so the helicopter could land there in the field."
Pezzella was released Sunday night and called her Monday morning to find out what had happened. She filled him in, and he thanked her. "Actually, it was very inspiring for me to see how life revolves," she said. "We don't know why everything works the way it does, but we both believe there's a plan and our paths were meant to cross. He didn't complain, but said he was thankful for what he had and that God must have been looking over his shoulder."
Ironically, five minutes earlier, and the Blazer wouldn't have been there. Marquardt's son Tyler, 20, is being deployed overseas with the Army National Guard, in July, and will come home on leave next week for five days before departing. The Blazer had just returned from getting its state inspection so Tyler could drive it while he's home.
AS FOR HER heroic action, Marquardt said, "Anybody would have done it. I'm just glad he's going to be OK. It makes every day more precious."
Pezzella was feeling better Monday night, but was to undergo plastic surgery Tuesday morning at Georgetown University Hospital to repair the damage to his forehead, lips, right eyelid, perimeter of the eye, right ear and right cheek.
A salesman at Pohanka Lexus in Chantilly, he bicycles 30 miles, three to five times a week, for exercise. He was deciding which route to take home for his last mile; then he was going to shower and report to work for his 1-9 p.m. shift, that day. Then came the accident.
"My wife Maria was just about to go looking for me because I was late coming home," said Pezzella. "Then she got a call from the social worker at the hospital, around 1 p.m., saying I was in critical condition."
Grabbing their three sons, ages 4, 2 and 2 months, she raced to the hospital. Later, Pezzella's parents, sister and brother came, too, from the Hampton/Virginia Beach area.
"It's just by God's grace that I'm here," he said. "I went through the window and back out. [Marquardt] said it took 20 minutes for the fire department to wash the blood off the road."
Praising the "marvelous people" who helped him, Pezzella said, "As much as we see that's bad in the world, we have to stop and see that there's a lot of good, too — and a lot of compassion — and that people do care. [Marquardt] took responsibility; she saw somebody laying there injured and didn't want to see him die — this was somebody's son, husband and brother."
"I thank God for her because who knows what would have happened to me, [otherwise]?" he continued. "I could have bled to death. Her actions saved my life. She's a good person, and I look forward to meeting her."
Instead of cursing his bad luck, Pezzella said the incident made him realize anew the many blessings he has. "I'm 47 and, when I look at my boys, it just gives me more impetus to want to do right by my children and to be the person God wants me to be," he said. "My wife and my children are my greatest gifts on this earth."
Interestingly, he said that when he rides he bike, he's in prayer because it's a great time for him to do it. He prays for others' welfare and "that we all live as we should do. I'm sure God's protectors were there — and they have been, many times."
As for his bike, Pezzella hopes it's salvagable. If not, he said, "I probably won't be able to afford a new one, because things are tight." Regarding Marquardt's coming to his aid, last week, he said, "It's a testimony to the goodness that's innate in all of us."