It couldn’t have been a more idyllic summertime scene: a kid on his bicycle, riding along the side of a bustling suburban road en route to his very first football practice of the season.
Never has an evening in the Town of Tonawanda turned tragic more suddenly.
Twelve-year-old Imani Gilbert was struck by a car just after 5 p.m. Thursday while attempting to cross Delaware Road at Sheridan Drive. By the time the driver of the dark blue Pontiac Vibe, who had been turning left onto Sheridan, realized what happened, Imani was pinned beneath her vehicle.
In the harrowing moments that followed, a community just north of the City of Good Neighbors put its compassion on display for the world to see.
Passers-by at the busy intersection dropped everything and sprinted to help.
Motorists abandoned their vehicles in the middle of Sheridan Drive at rush hour and joined the rescue effort.
A local volunteer fire chief who happened to be shopping at a nearby Sears store took charge, directing those assembled to bunch up on the passenger side of the vehicle.
Together, the modern-day good Samaritans – an estimated eight to 10 in total – lifted the vehicle to waist height, allowing other rescuers to pull the boy out from under the car.
Imani later died of severe injuries. And two days removed from the tragedy, people throughout the community mourned the loss of the eighth-grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School, who was called a “fiery sparkplug” and “an all-around good kid” by a former football coach.
They also remarked on the courage and presence of mind displayed by the heroes of the day, even as some of the rescuers downplayed their own heroism, saying that anyone in their positions would have done the same.
“I just consider myself a normal person,” said Ray Marello III, who helped lift the vehicle off the boy.
A father of three from Cheektowaga, Marello was driving on Delaware Road with his wife and kids when the accident occurred just two cars ahead of them. Marello, 29, said his decision to help was a “natural instinct.”
“As soon as I saw the accident, I was like, ‘You know what – I have to do something,’ ” he said.
Marello said he jumped out of his car and rushed to the scene as soon as he saw the crash, leaving his wife to drive the car a safe distance away, where their children couldn’t see.
Enter Gary Stuff, the volunteer fire chief who was shopping at the Sears just east of Delaware Road when the crash occurred.
Stuff, of the Ellwood Volunteer Fire Company in Kenmore, said his 23 years of emergency experience kicked in immediately, and he calmly delivered the order to lift the vehicle from the passenger side.
“When a kid is involved in something, everybody gets an extra sense of urgency,” said Stuff, 43.
Asked whether it surprised him that a group of total strangers, most of whom presumably lacked the same experience in emergency situations, could accomplish the feat of heaving a vehicle weighing upward of 2,000 pounds high enough to free a child, Stuff said adrenaline played a big part in the effort. Everyone performed admirably under pressure, he added.
“It wasn’t a strain, it came up really easy,” he said. “It was like everybody had been working together for years.”
Moreover, there was no shortage of helping hands.
“People were just coming out of nowhere,” Stuff recalled. “It was like ants coming out of an anthill for a Sugar Pop.”
Marello credited Stuff with providing a jolt of much-needed leadership.
“As soon as he said ‘Let’s get the kid out’ we just sprung into action,” said Marello, adding that he never experienced a moment of doubt they would succeed in freeing the boy.
Earlier reports incorrectly noted Marello’s father, also named Ray, was the one who took part in the rescue effort. Ray Marello Jr. is a detective with the Town of Tonawanda Police.
Although Stuff and Marello were not alone in the rescue, they may be the only ones who will ever receive public recognition. Most of their fellow everyday heroes disappeared as suddenly as they stepped forward, returning to the vehicles they left idling in the street or otherwise going about their business.
Neither Marello nor Stuff could say with any certainty how many people in all helped lift the vehicle.
Whatever their reasons for leaving the scene so quickly, the anonymous rescuers will not go unthanked.
“For me as a first responder and as a chief, I just want to thank anybody that got out of their car and anyone that came over and helped,” said Stuff.
School officials praised everyone involved in attempting to save their young student, starting with Stuff and company.
Carmelina Persico, principal of Hoover Middle School, said the good Samaritans’ actions are indicative of the type of people who live and work in the area.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said of efforts to save Imani. “Ken-Ton is such a great community. I’ve been part of it for such a long time and it’s such upstanding citizens that would do something like that. We’re really proud.”
Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board President Bob Dana also said he was not surprised to learn about the outpouring of selflessness.
“Anyone in this neighborhood who sees someone in need – in that kind of tragic need – will spring into response and do everything they can to assist someone,” he said. “That has been my history here.”
“To be able to lift a car and pull a child out from underneath that’s pinned under there? Superhuman strength,” Dana said. “It’s amazing what the body can do in a time of need.”
The events of Thursday evening were reminiscent of another local tragedy involving everyday heroes. On Sept. 3, 2009 – nearly four years ago – about a dozen bystanders responded to a six-car pileup on the Niagara Thruway, helping to save several lives.
Dr. Dietrich Jehle, an emergency physician at CMC who was among the first responders that day, said he was not surprised that total strangers would be willing to band together to save a life. Much like Marello and Stuff, he claimed anyone is capable of lifesaving action in moments of crisis. In the Buffalo area especially, he said, “people help neighbors.”
Here, “people go out of their way to do what they would want somebody to do to them in that situation,” said Jehle, citing that timeless ethical code, the Golden Rule.
Marello echoed those sentiments nearly verbatim when asked what ultimately motivated him to get out of the car in that fateful moment.
“I basically did it because I’d like to think that someone would do that for me,” he said.
That Imani did not survive does not diminish the courage of his rescuers but does leave them with heavy hearts.
“I wish there was more we could have done for the child, but I think we did the best job we could,” said Stuff. “My thoughts and prayers are just for that boy’s family right now and what they must be going through.”
News of Imani’s death took an especially big toll on Town of Tonawanda Councilman Daniel J. Crangle, who coached Imani when he played football for the Town of Tonawanda Football Association last year.
Crangle struggled to contain his emotions as he remembered his young quarterback as a “smart, athletic” kid with a “great personality.” He said he was “floored” when he heard the news on Friday.
“He was the athlete that used to help out the younger kids if they weren’t in the right position,” said Crangle, praising Imani for his eagerness to help others.
“That’s what he liked doing – he liked helping kids out,” Crangle said.
Crangle said he spent about half an hour on Friday with Imani’s father in the Sheridan-Parkside apartment Imani and his father shared. And he promised that the upcoming youth football season would be a memorable one in Imani’s honor.
Decals with Imani’s initials will adorn the helmets of both his former team and the one he was just getting ready to join, the Hoover Middle School Dragons.
Crangle also said a teammate of Imani’s has asked to wear the number 7 this season – the same number Imani wore.
Tonawanda police said the motorist who struck Imani was obeying all traffic laws and no drug, alcohol or cellphone use appeared to be involved. An investigation is ongoing.
News Staff Reporter Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report. email: email@example.com