Petra Riedel (50) ‘He didn’t do it on purpose. It was the road’s fault’
Petra Riedel (50) from Duisburg in Germany died on April 21st, 2012, when she was hit from behind by a car driving along the Bandon Road about 10km south of Cork city. Riedel, who was living in Cork, had been cycling along the northbound hard shoulder of the N71 dual carriageway. She was forced to move into one of the vehicle lanes when the hard shoulder came to an end. She died instantly. On the N71 Bandon Road about 10km south of Cork city a small wooden cross sits buried in the long grass on the side of the dual carriageway. Inscribed on this weather-worn post is one name – Petra. It is marked April 21st, 2012, and accompanied by a solemn “RIP”.
Six years ago a small group of people gathered at this otherwise non-descript stretch of road to plant their modest memorial in the west Cork soil. Anne Riedel watched silently as her father Thomas pounded the small stick of wood into the ground. Only a few weeks had passed since her visit to see how her mother was settling into her new volunteering role in Cork.
Petra arrived in Cork city in late 2011. Her only daughter had recently moved away to university, and Petra had suffered from depression in her absence.
She had previously studied education and worked with people with disabilities in Germany. She was looking for volunteer opportunities when she came across the L’Arche organisation. The community scheme, founded in France in the early 1960s, offered volunteers the chance to work, live and develop friendships with people suffering from intellectual and physical disabilities.
Petra, who already had a deep love of the Irish countryside, signed up to the year- long project in Cork city and packed her bags.
“She loved it, it was exactly what she needed to do and she was so at ease,” remembers Anne, who visited her mother in Cork in early April 2012. “She was assigned to one woman in particular who had been a victim of abuse as a child. My mum was the first person in many years who was able to reach out to her, they had a very strong connection.”
Petra had originally planned to spend a year in Ireland. However, Anne’s mother immediately felt at home in Cork and started making plans to stay longer. “She fell in love with Ireland. She hoped my dad would come and join her.”
Petra developed a strong friendship with Maria Lezama who works with Cork’s L’Arche community. “She just felt in coming to Ireland she had come home to herself, that whatever felt missing from her life she had found it.”
Maria, who is originally from Trinidad, remembers the day Petra arrived into the office with her new bike. A passionate cyclist, Petra had been planning since the moment she arrived in Ireland to buy a bike. “She was like a child on Christmas day, she was so excited. That was only five days before the accident.”
Petra had also told Anne she was planning to buy a bike. “As a family we always cycled everywhere, we never had a car. My parents were huge cycle enthusiasts, they cycled everywhere.”
Shortly before she left, Anne, who had spent a year living in Dublin when she was 17, advised her mother to take extra care on Irish roads. “I went to school in Portmarnock and I always took the bus. I hated it but I knew I had to do it because it was too dangerous to cycle. I told my mum to be careful, that there was no cycle infrastructure on Irish roads.”
On April 21st, 2012 – a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon – Petra cycled her new bike out of the city for a day trip around west Cork. Meanwhile Kathy Foulds, the co-ordinator of the L’Arche Cork volunteers, was preparing to go out for dinner with her family to celebrate her 60th birthday.
Shortly before 5pm Kathy’s phone rang. She picked up only to hear one of her L’Arche colleagues sobbing down the line. The volunteer explained that a garda had just called to the Dóchas house where Petra lived with the news that she had been killed on the road an hour earlier.
Petra had been cycling around a bend on the Bandon road where the hard shoulder comes to an end when a car hit her from behind. She died instantly.
Back in Germany, Petra’s husband Thomas had turned off his mobile phone for the afternoon. Kathy used another emergency contact and rang the local pastor in the town of Duisburg where the family lived. He then contacted Anne’s boyfriend who jumped on a train to the town of Luneberg where Anne was studying.
“When the bell rang that morning I thought it might be a parcel,” remembers Anne. “But there was my boyfriend standing with his mum. The first thing I thought when he told me she was dead was that I needed a black dress for the funeral. I couldn’t cope, I wouldn’t let it sink in.”
Anne eventually contacted her father who came to the train station to pick her up. From there they got a lift to her mother’s hometown where Anne’s grandparents lived. “They weren’t at home so we didn’t know what to do. We just wandered around and then saw them on the street. My grandma fell down and passed out when we told her.”
The following day the father and daughter flew to Cork. A fluent English speaker, 21-year-old Anne had to act as a translator with the gardaí and undertakers. “We spent about four days in Ireland and they were the most helpful days in the grieving process. Irish people just accepted the death.
“In Germany they’re very correct, they ask all the details. But in Ireland it was never ‘ what happened’, the question was how we could deal with this and make it ok. It just felt like a ridiculous death, it was a cycling accident.”
The L’Arche community arranged for their woodwork project to carve a small cross with Petra’s details inscribed across the middle. It was Maria who held the cross as Thomas drove it deep into the damp soil. “The sound of that pounding of the cross into the ground was like the pounding into reality that she was gone. She was only with us for five months but it felt like five years.”
In the weeks and months that followed Anne struggled to come to terms with her mother’s death. Before the incident she loved every moment of her university studies but now she found it impossible to concentrate. “I started having panic attacks and I couldn’t cope with the pressure of exams. If I couldn’t reach my dad on his phone I immediately thought he was dead.”
Anne and her father returned to Ireland the following year for the trial hearing of her mother’s death. The man who had knocked her down sat with his wife across the gallery from Anne.
“It was the first time I saw him. His lawyer had said he was very sorry and couldn’t go on with his life because of what happened.
“I cannot explain it but somehow I told him it was okay. I said: ‘It’s enough that we have to cope with this, don’t let it ruin your life. His wife came over to me after the hearing crying. I hugged her. Then I hugged him. It was a surreal moment but it really helped me. He didn’t do it on purpose; it was the road’s fault.”
A few years after her mother died, Anne gave birth to a baby girl. “The first six months were awful. I was really depressed and I missed her so much. But I’m building a new identity that makes me a mother, not a daughter.”
She still feels a deep connection to Ireland but will never cycle on this island. “My mum loved cycling and feeling free on her bike. She also loved Ireland. But I will never cycle in Ireland, I wouldn’t feel safe on Irish roads.”
‘‘ I will never cycle in Ireland, I wouldn’t feel safe on Irish roads
Kathy Foulds at the spot where her ■ friend Petra Riedel was killed in 2012.
Petra Riedel Killed: April 21st, 2012