YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Los Angeles

She Stops and Smells the Basil

A woman seriously injured in the Santa Monica Farmers' Market crash last year keeps pursuing life.

August 05, 2004|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

As his 89-year-old mother lay battered and broken in a hospital bed a year ago, Dan Khani would squeeze fresh basil between his fingertips and hold it up to her nose, reciting in Hebrew: "Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to smell the aroma of this product of your nature."

Such small connections, Khani had said last August, helped pull his mother back "virtually from the other world" after she was grievously injured when an errant driver slammed through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market.

On Wednesday, as market vendors and shoppers debated the conclusions of a federal safety report on the July 16, 2003, crash, Shamsi Khani had one thing on her mind: finding perfect tomatoes for the sauce that she would season with the sweet basil her son continues to bring her.

And so it was that this matriarch of an extended Iranian-Jewish family wrapped herself in a grape-colored sweater to ward off the morning coastal chill and ventured out to her beloved farmers market. Instead of pulling her own metal cart the two blocks to the popular outdoor food bazaar, as had been her habit, she was pushed in a wheelchair by an aide.

One of Khani's legs is now shorter than the other, causing her to sway when she uses a walker to get around her ocean-view Santa Monica condo. One hip is pinned. Her neck holds a metal plate. She hears poorly, tires easily and continues to endure painful rehabilitation.

Still, it is a miracle, her family and doctors said, that Khani survived. She turned 90 in June.

Although she resumed her weekly market excursions five months ago, Khani still creates a stir as she shops for summer squashes, lettuce, oranges and Asian pears. Vendors who know her best refuse to take her money.

"She goes with $15 and comes back with $16," joked her son Ed Khani.

Gloria Tamai, an Oxnard farmer, picked out a big bag of soft tomatoes that would soon be simmering on Khani's stove, a sauce she would freeze and give to her family.

Tamai recalled the afternoon that George Russell Weller, then 86, propelled his car through the market, apparently after confusing the accelerator with the brake. When she saw Khani in a bloody, crumpled heap -- both legs broken, neck broken and right ear slashed in half -- Tamai doubted that she would survive the trauma.

"She's a strong woman," Tamai said, congratulating Ed and Dan on having such a determined mother.

Beaming as vendors fawned over her, Shamsi Khani pointed from one booth to the other and said: "I am happy to come back with my friends, this one, that one."

Vilma Causey, of Briar Patch Farm in Kingsburg, hugged and kissed Khani, handed her four -- free -- Asian pears, then wiped away tears. "She always comes here," Causey said, turning away to add: "But she used to be walking."

Farmers and shoppers said Wednesday that it has been impossible to forget the carnage from the crash.

"For months, I'd hear the sound of the posts being hit and the thwack, thwack, thwack of melons flying through the air," said shopper Tina Fasbender Goodfriend.

Three months ago, Khani's family filed suit against Weller and the city of Santa Monica, alleging that the farmers market posed "a dangerous condition."

The Khanis and others were digesting the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, which said Tuesday that rigid protective barriers placed at the market entry points would have reduced the number of casualties.

Ten people died and 63 others were injured in the crash. Weller faces 10 felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

Among other recommendations, the NTSB urged Santa Monica to install a temporary barrier system and to update its traffic plan for road closures.

Market vendors were divided on the merits of installing strong metal posts, like those the city uses on the Third Street Promenade, a pedestrians-only shopping and dining area.

"I don't think that any sponsor of any certified farmers market should be held culpable for not having some type of a barrier to stop a once-in-a-lifetime freak accident," said orange seller Dave Eakin.

James Birch of Flora Bella Farm disagreed. Installing barricades at the market "would be the right thing to do," he said. "Making something safer after the fact is not acknowledging they [the city] were wrong."

Indeed, said Stanley Jacobs, Khani's attorney, there is a "doctrine of subsequent repair," which holds that safety improvements installed after an accident cannot be introduced as evidence in court in negligence cases such as those filed in the market incident. He said he suspects that once the 50 suits against the city have been "disposed of, they're going to put in this kind of barricade."

Michael Piuze, another plaintiff's attorney, said he was "pleased to see that the NTSB agrees with the position and reasoning of the plaintiffs."

"There is no reason why the city of Santa Monica or the district attorney's office should be pursuing Mr. Weller for a felony," Piuze said. "He is an old man that made a mistake." The city of Santa Monica, Piuze said, had not taken "the obvious precautions in advance so that the mistake would have been a little mistake."

Santa Monica officials said Tuesday that rigid barricades could hinder access for emergency vehicles. Also, the city said it follows street closure procedures commonly used throughout the country.

Los Angeles Times Articles