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Chain Gang Memorial now "part of the Kalamazoo landscape"

Chain Gang Memorial now "part of the Kalamazoo landscape".  (WWMT/Jake Berent)

Two years after a pickup truck crashed into a group of riders known as “The Chain Gang," a memorial has been dedicated near the site where four bicyclists died and five others were critically injured.

After the 2017 memorial ride on the date of the crash, Paul Runnels, Paul Gobble, the other two survivors of the crash and the families of the five victims began to create their vision of the memorial.

“We knew we wanted it to be in the memory of the five friends we lost, but also include all the bikers in the crash,” Runnels said.

“The Chain Gang had fundraising events, but when we sat down and said, 'OK, it’s time to really push and make this happen, where are we going to get the money and funds and materials to make this happen,'” Gobble said. “The community stepped up like we couldn't believe. The amount of companies and individuals that expressed a really strong desire to be a part of this and make this happen ... well, it's tremendous.”

The group turned to Kalamazoo artist Joshua Diedrich to make the vision a reality.

“I actually made five completely different monuments out of wax and various materials and proposed those to them," Diedrich said. "In one, we had a few wax bicyclists, and a tram fit one holding a bicycle over their heads, or groups of bicyclists like a bronze figure. We had a temple of bike frames all welded together. The one they ended up going for was this model right here, this has seen better days, but this is the original one I showed to them.”

“Everyone just said, this is it. This is the one. There was no question,” Runnels said. “It has the most gravitas, it has the most solemn feel to it."

“Memorial walls have a very long history going back to the ancient world when you make a wall with an inscription making an historical event,” Diedrich said. "I think that it has the simplicity of it, the modernity of it makes it something that has a lot of seriousness.”

Diedrich worked closely with the survivors and the families of the victims every step of the way.

“There's a real question of moral authority on something like this," Diedrich said. "The people who lost friends, lost family members, the people who were actually injured. Any memorial sculpture like this, it's always someone's process of grieving to make that statue. It's something concrete they can do to dedicate to their friend, their loved one. Having those people who were directly involved in the crash here, putting hands on it, that adds a lot to the project and is a really important factor.”

The final design is a memorial wall much like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. and is located near the Marken House on North Westnedge, near the site of the crash. It is made of silver steel and includes five bicycles running uphill along the top of the wall, a description of the events of June 7, 2016, and the names of the victims and survivors.

“You can read the writing on the wall, and the bikes on the hillside roughly line up with where the accident actually took place, or just prior to where the accident took place. I feel like it's a good place for people to both be vividly reminded of what happened, but also to take a moment and rest, and be in a peaceful spot and contemplate the events,” Diedrich said.

Gobble said the memorial successfully captures the vision.

“It's part of this hill; it's worked into the landscape and the trees, very much the way I understand and appreciate this event to be for the community," Gobble said. "It's part of our landscape, and we need to respect it, remember it and appreciate it. The five of us who died that day need to be remembered. And this does that, it builds it into the landscape."

Runnels said the goal was for the monument to have multiple purposes.

“We want it here for the families of those who were killed, the families of those who survived," Runnels said. "We want it here for the bicycling community and the community at large who really helped us get through this. We hope that people who drive by may see it, and say, 'Gosh, what is that?' And just raise consciousness for people in general to bicycles being on the road and needing to share the space.”

Those behind the project said they want to thank everyone who helped to make the memorial a reality, and helped them move closer to closure.

“Through this, I think the four of us survivors have actually bonded considerably," Runnels said. "I think the whole thing has been part of the healing process, which will continue on. I think it's always continuing. People like to talk about closure, but ... I've talked to some of the family members and it's pretty clear that it's going to be a continuous process. One chapter ends and another one starts, and you just keep moving on.”

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