What a year

How 2001 changed four Juneau lives

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2001

Devastating physical injuries, moving one's home from one part of the world to another, and witnessing tragedy can all shape the future of a life. Four Juneau residents talked about how their lives have been touched in a major way in the last year.

Buzz Ritter

Since he was thrown into the air by a recreational vehicle making a U-turn, Buzz Ritter has looked hard at life.

Ritter and his son were riding motorcycles on a state highway southeast of Santa Fe, N.M., on Oct. 23, 2000 when the accident happened. Ritter almost lost his life in the hour following that bone-wrenching impact.

"He made a sudden turn and crossed two sets of double yellow lines while I was on the off-ramp," Ritter recalled. "I had checked my rear view mirror to merge, and when I looked back, he was in front of me. My son (Jake, 25) was 50 feet behind me but unable to avoid hitting the vehicle, too. Both of our cycles were destroyed.

"I would have died if I had not had good protective gear of ballistic nylon with Kevlar reinforcements and a full-face helmet on," Ritter said. "I was bleeding heavily and in deep shock, and the ambulance driver got permission to break the speed limit to get me to the hospital.

"I was a believer (about protective gear anyway), but now I think anyone who rides motor cycles without such things is being foolish," Ritter said.

Ritter broke his right leg and right hip - a total of six bones. He endured a 16-day ordeal in the hospital that included two surgeries.

The accident was an unexpected complication of a 7,500-mile trip that had been years in the planning.

"I was so angry when I knew I was going to hit, because we had planned for so long. I felt guilty about my son's vacation being ruined," said Ritter, the cook and owner of Paradise Lunch & Bakery.

Ritter bought the downtown restaurant in December 1995, and worked six days a week in the summer. After the accident he couldn't work, and his wife, Monica, needed to stay home to care for him. Their source of income had to be closed for two months.

"It was a very slow and painful process of healing," said Ritter, who still walks with a cane. "When it happened, there was a possibility that I would lose my right foot because it was hugely swollen and there was flail damage."

Flail damage is the result of rolling, scraping and bumping against various objects and surfaces when catapulted by great force. His foot was very swollen well into February. His hands also were numb for a while, from nerve damage suffered as he tumbled down the highway.

"Nerves regenerate only about half an inch a month," he said. "It still feels like the tops of my toes are on fire." Acupuncture and massage have afforded him some relief.

Until February, Ritter was confined to a wheelchair. He used a walker into June, and was not able to work a full day at his restaurant until September.

"When I came back to work, I could sit to decorate cakes, but only two or three hours a day, and the next day I would be exhausted," he said.

Ritter has had a lot of time to think. "I have a lot of guilt about putting my family through it all, even though it couldn't be helped," he said. "It was definitely a life-changing experience. It reinforced for me how precious friends and family are, and made me appreciate Juneau, which is full of caring, supportive, kind people."

Among other things, friends held a fund-raiser for him to cover extra medical bills.

"It also made me appreciate being able to walk easily - since I still can't," he added.


Jay and Jason Ginter

On Sept. 11, Jay Ginter and his son Jason, 16, were in Washington, D.C., headed for the Air and Space Museum. They were taking advantage of Alaska Airlines' new flights to Washington after celebrating the 86th birthday of Jay's mother in West Virginia.

"We were going to spend a day at the museum, because Jason is interested in being a pilot, and then fly home to Juneau," Jay said.

The terrorist events of Sept. 11 changed their plans.

"We were supposed to be gone six days and ended up gone 12 days," said Jay, who works on fisheries regulations for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

At the time a hijacked plane struck the Pentagon, the Ginters were passing in a train through the underground subway station for the Pentagon.

"We pulled into the station for the Pentagon and everyone was running all over the place," Jason said. "I thought it might be a riot because there were police, and no one looked like he was going anywhere. One guy leapt over the turnstile to try to get to the train before it left. A few people got on, but a guard on the tracks was motioning the driver to keep going.

"We didn't feel or hear anything when the plane crashed," Jason said. "The only clue was that a guy who got onto the train commented to people that a plane had just crashed into the Pentagon." The man, however, then began to read his paper with no further explanation.

"When the train rose onto a trestle over the Potomac River, everyone was looking back, and I saw huge amounts of black smoke," Jay said.

His son had the presence of mind to snap photos.

"I was standing there with my jaw down, but Jason was going click, click," Jay said. "The crash was on the far side of the Pentagon, and we didn't know the extent of the damage. We didn't know the gravity of it, or that it was a terrorist attack."

As they left the subway, an announcement over the public address system said the Pentagon station was closed. They walked to the Air and Space Museum, arriving a few minutes before it was due to open at 10 a.m. However, a guard emerged and said it would be closed for at least two hours.

"At first we thought it was a really bad airplane accident," Jay said. "Then we saw television news, and I was incredulous when the second (World Trade Center) tower fell. It didn't seem real."

As they strolled the city after lunch, "There was not a car or a person in sight on Pennsylvania Avenue, although it was a beautiful sunny day," Jay added.

Using the Internet, they found lodging in Washington with a distant cousin. Jason is still trying to catch up with the extra week of school he missed.

"There has been a lot of curiosity from people on the street in Juneau saying, 'Good you survived and got back OK,' Jay said. "We've become minor celebrities."


Noli Batac

Noli Batac didn't become a celebrity of any kind in 2001. One might say he regressed in social standing. Still, he considers himself fortunate.

"I am an engineer in the Philippines but here I am a grocery staffer," Batac said, summing up his situation.

Just managing to reach the United States from the Philippines is difficult because of immigration and naturalization quotas, the 33-year-old said. In 1977, for example, his uncle, who lives in Maryland, petitioned to bring Batac's father, Florencio, to the United States. Florencio finally made it in 1992. In turn, Florencio petitioned for Noli in 1994, and Noli did not arrive until May 2001.

Noli figures it will take him four years to retrieve his wife and his son, now 8 months old. Meanwhile, he lives in his father's trailer home. Florencio works in maintenance at the Juneau Pioneers' Home, where Noli's mother, Milagros, is a cook. Noli is the middle of five children. His sister works at Key Bank. His younger brother, Vicente, 27, is Noli's boss at the Alaskan & Proud market.

"He's my big brother here," Noli said with a smile. Two older siblings are still waiting for their petitions to be answered.

Noli has signed up for eight years with the Army National Guard Reserve as an assistant chaplain.

"I think it is the most noble way to serve the country that has helped my family," he said. He's also counting on the educational benefits. "I cannot sustain my education by simply working."

In the Philippines, he studied civil engineering technology at Manilla Technicians Institute. He's in the process of converting his college credits through the University of Alaska Southeast, and figures it will take him three years (or nine semesters total) to complete a degree here. Back in the islands, he worked as a laboratory aide in a company that does structural research and he earned the title of soil engineer - but it doesn't translate to the American work force. His monthly wage was 16,000 to 20,000 pesos, or about $400 U.S. He came to Juneau to get ahead because he felt there was no way to do that in his native land.

"We are very lucky we came here. We are one of the blessed ones," Noli said.

"It doesn't matter to me if you are a janitor or the manager," Noli added. "What matters is the nobility that you put in the job. I believe in what the Bible says, 'What you sow is what you reap.' "

Monica Ritter, Buzz Ritter's wife, probably sums up the feelings of every person who has experienced a significant life event: "It's been one hell of a year - a learning and growing experience."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.

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