Perspective | A grieving father retraces his wife’s last route — then goes further

In World


When the day came to leave Ukraine, Sarah and Dan Langenkamp didn’t have time to pack up their home. They had to leave behind their furniture, their clothes and their children’s toys, not knowing if they would see any of it again.

Dan Langenkamp expected they wouldn’t.

But in recent days, as a result of what he describes as the heroic efforts of embassy workers and a Ukrainian housekeeper, boxes filled with those belongings began showing up at the family’s Maryland home.

For the family, their arrival has brought relief — and pain. Relief because it means they will no longer have to live out of suitcases. Pain because those boxes contain so many reminders of Sarah Langenkamp, who was killed in August when the driver of a flatbed truck struck her as she rode her bicycle from an open house event at her sons’ elementary school.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Dan Langenkamp said of sifting through his wife’s belongings. So many items call out for her, he said, “They say ‘I need her.’ They say, ‘I need the owner of my stuff for me to be useful, and she’s not here.’ ”

Those boxes don’t just contain yoga pants; they contain her yoga pants. They don’t just contain boots; they contain her boots.

“Right now, it’s cold and she has this beautiful pair of winter boots that are just empty,” he said. “I had to put them in the back of the closet.”

On Saturday, drivers passing through Bethesda, Md. and D.C. might have seen a sea of cyclists riding through the streets together. They were following Dan Langenkamp along the last route his wife traveled — and then, they rode further than she was able. Together, they rode from her children’s elementary school to the crash spot on River Road. They then continued on, riding until they reached the Capitol Reflecting Pool. There, they called on federal lawmakers and officials to dedicate resources and put in place measures that would help make roads across the nation safer.

More than 1,500 people were expected to participate in the “Ride for Your Life” event, which was promoted by Trek, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, Families for Safe Streets and others. Among those who participated were people who loved Sarah Langenkamp, including her children, and people who had never met her but recognized in her death a need for action. She was a U.S. diplomat who fled Ukraine to seek safety, only to die on a Washington-area road.

A U.S. diplomat left Ukraine, only to die on a Washington-area road

“Deadly road design is a policy choice,” said Colin Browne, of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “The tools for making streets safer for everyone — people walking, rolling, biking, taking the bus, driving — exist, and they are in use in cities all over the world.”

Browne described Saturday’s ride as a way to protest “a simple, grim reality: hundreds of people die and thousands suffer life-altering injuries on our region’s roads every year, not because we don’t have know how to prevent it, but because too many of our elected officials and agency leaders are still afraid to make driving and parking marginally less convenient.”

In an earlier column, I told you about Sarah Langenkamp. I’ve also told you in other columns about other pedestrians and cyclists who have been fatally injured on roads in the region: 32-year-old Brett Badin, 5-year-old Allison Hart, 70-year-old Michael Hawkins Randall, 64-year-old Charles Jackson, 65-year-old Michael Gordon and 40-year-old Shawn O’Donnell. Those last four deaths happened within the same month.

At 5, she was killed riding her bike in a crosswalk. Her legacy should be safer streets.

Behind each of those names is a family that was unexpectedly thrust into mourning and activists who rose up to ask, again, for officials to do more to prevent future deaths.

There have been other rides and gatherings in the region aimed at bringing awareness to the need for road safety improvements. But most of those have demanded local officials take action. At Saturday’s event, participants called on Congress to fund safe biking and pedestrian infrastructure and the Transportation Department to implement measures to improve truck safety. One measure would require large trucks to add structural guards on the lower front and sides to prevent cars, bicycles or pedestrians from sliding underneath.

Langenkamp said his wife could have survived if that measure had been in place. The truck that hit her was traveling in the same direction as her when it turned right into a parking lot, according to police.

“These deaths are really violent,” Langenkamp said. “We should not cover that up. Nobody should be killed on our streets like this. People say she was ‘struck by a truck’ or ‘hit by a truck.’ No, she was crushed by a truck, and killed instantly on the side of the road.”

His voice shook as he said that. He knows that’s not a gentle image, but what she experienced was not gentle, and he believes people need to recognize that to fully understand what traffic victims and their family members experience.

On Saturday, several people gave speeches and a few high-ranking officials sent statements that were read aloud. One of those came from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. In it, he acknowledge the significance of the event coming the day before World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

“Each year, on the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, we mourn those who have lost their lives in traffic crashes,” the statement read. “But mourning is not enough. We must all dedicate ourselves to ending this crisis on our roadways and creating a safer transportation system so that more families do not have to share this grief.”

After his wife’s death, Langenkamp received notes from senators and other U.S. officials. One letter came from President Biden.

“Sarah will always be remembered for her unwavering commitment to our Nation,” reads Biden’s letter. “She was an exceptional diplomat who dedicated herself to fulfilling America’s promise to its citizens and the world. We are especially grateful to your family for both your and Sarah’s courageous service in Ukraine.”

In a letter, Attorney General Merrick Garland told of working with Sarah and described her as representing “the best of America, working tirelessly and at considerable personal risk and sacrifice on behalf of our country to pursue peace, democracy, prosperity, and adherence to the rule of law.”

Dan Langenkamp worked at the state department with his wife, but he has taken a leave since her death. He has spent his days instead, he said, trying to make sure she didn’t die for nothing and learning how to parent two children on his own. Their sons were 8 and 10 and had just enrolled in a new school when the crash happened

“It’s been really hard,” Langenkamp said. “It was super emotional to go to Target the other day to buy some extra winter stuff. We always went to Target together, and suddenly I was this hapless dad by myself doing it. I was trying to choose pants that fit, and Sarah knew that stuff cold.”

When he talks about unpacking those boxes, he wavers between describing it as part of the “unraveling of our lives” and the “raveling our lives.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I’m walking back from my sons’ school and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this by myself.’ ”

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