During our two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Carrington’s voice and hands shook and his eyes were glossy as he discussed the frustrating collusion of physics, circumstances, and personal choices that led to the accident and made it so damaging. Anyone who has ever navigated a major New York intersection can imagine that the taxi that hit Carrington as he made his illegal turn might have been speeding, as Carrington claims. If it had been going slower, if Theresa had been a few seconds later to the corner, if the post against which she was crushed hadn’t been there—and if Carrington had not taken that day off from work, had not been there to make that turn—then everything would have been different.
Carrington seems desperate to redeem himself to “Ms. Sareo.” He says he wishes there were something—anything—he could do for her. Of his stone-faced demeanor during the trial, which offended some of her supporters, he says, “I had to take on a sense of stoicness to protect myself from falling apart.” He remembers the elevator encounter and realizes he gave offense, but says he thought his offense had been in not offering the elevator to Theresa: “I’m standing closest to the door and my mother and grandmother were pushing me in.” He says the stare that Ethan remembers was one of admiration.
He described explaining the accident to his now 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, who asked, “Daddy, what happened?”
“I was in a terrible accident.”
“Was someone hurt?”
“Yes, very badly.”
“Well, did you say you were sorry?”
In the visitation room, with other reunions in progress and the commotion of children and food and supervision, Carrington’s eyes reddened and his voice trembled. “I said, ‘Yes, I did say I was sorry.’ ” But on the advice of counsel, he never delivered any form of apology to Theresa.
Carrington is aware that to observers his silence suggested remorselessness, and that any expression of concern—even now—might strike some as insincere. But he maintains that he wanted to visit her in the hospital. “My grandmother, who recently passed away, was willing to go with me to see Ms. Sareo in the hospital, but my attorneys absolutely prohibited any contact,” he says. “My grandmother was a believer in God, and she was going to church and having people pray for Ms. Sareo, as I was, and she believed it was an accident, and she believed in the system. She told me I had to be willing to accept some punishment, and I agreed, but she never thought it would be seven years. I called her when I got out of that courtroom. Her voice was full of despair. She said, ‘Johnny, how could they? It was an accident.’ ”
In prison, Carrington knows men who are serving less time for violent crimes committed intentionally. He follows the sentencing of drivers in other vehicular cases and referred me to, among others, that of Leslie Jennemann, a Long Island resident who, after a night of drinking and dancing, killed a man in a hit-and-run, continued home to have sex with someone she had met earlier at a party, and the next day took her vehicle in for repair, claiming she had hit a deer. Convicted of second-degree manslaughter, she received a sentence of two to six years.
Even Theresa points out that Carrington was not drunk when he struck her but “impaired,” which in New York State means having a blood-alcohol content of between .05 and .07 percent. “I’m not defending him,” she told me, “but I have friends and family who drive like that and worse all the time. Have you never gotten behind the wheel after two or three drinks?”
It is perhaps a primal misjudgment of our lizard brains to suspect that someone missing a leg must be concerned with nothing more than the challenges of self-conveyance and is therefore disqualified from the creation of intellectual product and art. Ethan’s voice rises in frustration when he characterizes the attitude. “ ‘Good for you, you’ve got your own CD, that’s amazing!’ ” he says. “No, you know what’s amazing for you is that it’s going to be a kick-ass CD. Her singing is better than ever, her songwriting is better than ever, her band is better than ever. Don’t tell her ‘Good for you.’ She’s been performing since she was a kid.”
In late August, Theresa and her band began recording ten tracks for her new CD, to be called Alive Again. I attended a rehearsal and saw her perform “Take Me Down,” which includes the lines, “I wish I could walk a million miles / Or simply walk into your arms.” As she sang those lines I looked at Ethan on the drums to see if I could detect any twinge of emotion, but he was concentrating on the music, and so was she.
If one of the challenges for anyone who has worked to develop a means of expression is to transform personal experience, which is almost never directly relevant to others, into art that often is, then in this Theresa has succeeded by referring only obliquely to her tragedy, singing of grief for a lost way of life that is broadly resonant within the context of recent New York history and lends voice to anyone who has been dealt a U-turn, including perhaps even the incarcerated Jonathan Carrington.
Since the accident, friends have become acquaintances and vice versa, and every one of Theresa’s relationships has changed. “Some people are stuck where they are, which is fine, but I don’t have that luxury anymore,” she says. “I have to redefine the parameters of who I am.”
A few days after the accident, Blank spoke with Cushman and found out the odds were improving for Theresa Sareo’s survival. He considered visiting her but did not want to impose. Weeks later, he phoned her room at Bellevue and got her answering machine. “She sounded lucid, terrific, and that was good enough for me at that point,” he says. He did not leave a message. Even when he testified at Carrington’s trial, Blank did not cross paths with Theresa, though afterward she did call to thank him for his first aid and his testimony.
Their inevitable reunion had come to seem to both like unfinished business when, two years after the accident, Blank saw a woman on 34th Street near Lexington, walking slowly on what his medical training told him was a significant prosthetic leg. Beside her was a young man. “I thought, ‘This has got to be her,’ ” he recalls, “so I took a chance.” He walked up to Theresa and Ethan and introduced himself. “Last time I saw you, you didn’t look so good!” He pointed toward his office and explained how he had come upon Theresa that day. “I had just stepped out for some air and to go to Duane Reade.” He asked some detailed questions about her rehabilitation. It was going well, and she had started a support group for amputees at Bellevue. And how was the singing going? Also great. Theresa would be in the recording studio soon.
Theresa had long wanted to meet this man whose quick action helped keep her from dying on the sidewalk, but she had worried that facing him might cure her merciful amnesia about the accident. She wanted no vivid memories of the SUV, the post, or the wide-eyed faces of bystanders who thought they were witnessing her death. What a relief that Blank’s smile restored none of that. Instead, this chance meeting was yet another recovery milestone she could now put behind her.