Editor’s note: This story is by Mark Davis, staff writer at the Valley News, where it was first published on Oct. 10, 2012.
Justin Ciccarelli drove slowly in the right hand lane of Interstate 91 early Saturday morning, wary of the blackness and the gentle rain that enveloped the highway.
He had finished his shift at Dartmouth College’s Department of Safety and Security around 2 a.m., and just started on the 30-minute trip home to his wife and two young children when he came upon what he assumed was a dead animal in the road.
By the time Ciccarelli realized what was really lying on the highway that night, it was too late to swerve, too late to brake, too late to do much of anything except to pull to the side of the road, call 911 and check for signs of life he doubted would be there.
Loathe to slip into darkness, Ciccarelli said yesterday he has barely slept in the four days since his vehicle struck 24-year-old Mikhail Lomakin, a Dartmouth graduate student who was found dead after he was struck by at least one other vehicle that night.
“That’s what I have in my head now when I close my eyes,” Ciccarelli, who is chairman of the Windsor Selectboard, said in an interview. “(I’m) not wanting to close my eyes or be in the dark right now. I know in my heart I didn’t do anything wrong — it doesn’t make the situation any better.”
Those fateful seconds replay in his mind in an endless loop.
“I saw something and I didn’t know what it was,” Ciccarelli, 37, said. “I thought maybe a deer carcass. I was just like, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t have enough time to react or swerve. So I thought my best bet was to straddle it, and maybe it wouldn’t hit my tires and damage my car. It was my first thought — damage to my car. And, when I got up to it I realized, ‘Holy cow, it’s a human being,’ and at that point, there was nothing I could do.”
He pulled over, called 911 and activated his hazard lights and an application on his smart phone that emits a pulsing strobe light, to warn off passing vehicles.
Instinct, he said, kicked in: Ciccarelli spent several years working as a dispatcher from the Vermont State Police, and he knew some of the troopers who would soon respond to the scene.
“I’ve dealt with many situations like that before — it doesn’t prepare you for being involved and seeing it,” Ciccarelli said. “I knew what I had to do — dial 911 and see if he was alive — but I don’t know how … (nothing) prepares you to see what you see. I don’t know how troopers do it.”
Several passers-by stopped and offered to help, Ciccarelli said. Police were on the scene quickly. He stayed on the side of the highway until 8 a.m., talking to detectives who impounded his car, which remains in a police lot.
Another driver had hit Lomakin shortly before Ciccarelli, police said. Shane Harlow, 47, of Quechee, called authorities after it happened, Vermont State Police Capt. Ray Keefe said. Neither driver did anything wrong, Keefe said.
Harlow could not be reached for comment.
Evidence suggests Lomakin may have been struck first by another vehicle, before Ciccarelli and Harlow, and police are investigating that scenario.
“Could that have happened? Absolutely,” Keefe said. “Can we say definitely it happened? No.”
Only three months ago, Ciccarelli landed at the campus Safety and Security Office. His agony is only made worse by knowledge that the man in the road was one of the students he had been hired to protect.
Lomakin, a Russian native whose family emigrated to the United States in 1996, arrived in the Upper Valley only a few weeks ago, to begin a doctorate program in physics.
Lomakin, an only child, came from a family of achievers. His grandfather, grandmother and uncle were all physicists. His mother is a computer programmer.
In his last semester at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, where he studied atmospheric science, Lomakin took 25 credits and held a 4.0 GPA. In his free time, he learned to love physics.
His curiosity in the subject was piqued when his grandfather gave him a book discussing physics and black holes, his mother, Mariya Lomakin, said in a phone interview yesterday from her home in Groton, Mass.
Lomakin spent all of last summer studying for fun, plowing through books that his grandfather and uncle gave him and listening to lectures that he downloaded online.
“He taught himself physics better than students who (studied) physics in undergrad,” Mariya Lomakin said.
He applied to several graduate schools, but most were apparently bothered that Lomakin didn’t have an undergraduate degree in physics: Dartmouth was the only one to accept him, Mariya Lomakin said
“He was quite happy about it,” Mariya Lomakin said. “He wanted to try something new and it seemed a very good choice because it was not too far, and not too close to home. He loved it.”
“One more day in paradise,” Lomakin wrote in a recent Facebook post in mid-September.
Mariya Lomakin was scheduled to make her first trip to the Upper Valley to visit her son this weekend. His funeral is scheduled for today in Massachusetts.
The family, she said, is preoccupied with the same question that haunts Ciccarelli, Lomakin’s friends at Dartmouth and the police: What was he doing on the interstate?
“I have no clue,” Mariya Lomakin said “He wasn’t that wild. To go on the interstate at night, I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine.”
Keefe, the state police captain, said investigators have some evidence that Lomakin had been drinking on Friday night, but they are unsure if that played any role in his death and are still trying to piece together the final hours of his life.
“At the end of the day, we may never know what led him to be there,” Keefe said. “There is some evidence of alcohol, but we have no idea about level of impairment at this point.”
Anyone who saw Lomakin that night is asked to call the Vermont State Police Royalton barracks at 802-234-9933.
“This is a tragedy for his family, for the school and for the region, and we feel that too,” Keefe said.
Many are hoping that police can eventually provide some answers.
“For the sake of his family and friends, and for the sake of me, too, they need to know what he was doing there in the road,” Ciccarelli said.
Mark Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3304.