Community Remembers Kraverie Restaurant Co-Owner After Hit-and-Run Death
On Wednesday, June 19, Natalia Caicedo, better known to locals as Natasha, and her husband of about three years, Christian Usher, came back to their Downtown home after a long day at the Kraverie restaurant which they co-owned with a friend. As Usher got ready to wind down, Caicedo went into the other room to get her laptop, loaded with videos about people who died of lung cancer, and spent the next three hours begging him to stop smoking.
“She wouldn’t give up. She told me she wanted to be with me longer and she was showing me the video of a guy who was 47 years old who died of lung cancer…she was telling me, ‘Christian, this is you in 11 years,'” says the 36-year-old. “She really touched me so much that the day after on Thursday, I didn’t smoke a cigarette the whole day. When we were working, she was coming to me, patting me on the back, and saying, ‘I know you’re suffering right now. I’m so proud of you.'”
Later that night on Thursday, Caicedo would be riding southbound in the northbound lane of Marin Boulevard (Note: Bike advocacy group Bike JC says riding against the flow of traffic is unsafe) at about 8:30 pm when Neteria Augcomfar, 24, of Halladay Street, would strike the 34-year-old with her 2008 Volkswagen Jetta, police say.
According to Jayne Freeman, a JCI blogger who is close to the couple, a witness tried to force Augcomfar to pull over, nearly being mowed down in the process, and provided key details and a physical description to police. Augcomfar fled the scene, police say, while Caicedo sustained heavy trauma to the body and head from the accident and was rushed to Jersey City Medical Center. Freeman says Caicedo went through hours-long surgery in the day that followed; parts of her skull were removed and her brain was swollen and badly damaged.
(The incident was just one of several recent hit-and-runs in the city. Bike JC founder Chris Englese says he knew Caicedo and Usher and expressed his condolences. “This tragedy highlights, in the worst possible way, the need for all residents, politicians, cyclists, pedestrians and motorists to come together and work on a way to make the streets safe for all,” he says. For traveling safely at night, he says bicyclists should use appropriate bike lights and reflective gear, wear a helmet, use appropriate hand signals, keep music at a low volume and stick to local or secluded roads whenever possible.)
Usher, who was expecting to meet his wife near the waterfront, knew something was wrong when she didn’t show up or answer her phone, Freeman says, and went to the hospital fearing the worst. When he found Caicedo in critical condition, he was devastated and broke his resolve.
“I smoked a pack-and-a-half in two hours. I was a wreck. And when I finished one pack and was getting ready to buy another one, something in my head told me not to smoke,” says Usher. I thought, ‘If I have to take care of Natalia, I need to be in the best health. I need to be strong and healthy for her.’ So I didn’t buy it and I haven’t smoked since.”
Usher and Caicedo, both immigrants (from Uruguay and Russia, respectively), built a life in the United States together in the 13 years since they met in Jersey City. Together, they started a taco truck and then Lucinda Creperie, which partnered with Charles Heo’s Krave truck and opened a storefront on Mercer Street, Kraverie, in 2011. They had plans for the future, too, from the mundane, like getting health insurance, to bigger things like having kids.
“We were planning to have a family next year because I’m 36 and my wife was 34. We thought it was time and we wanted to have kids. She thought next year was going to be a good time,” says Usher. “All that was stolen from us.”
Their dreams of that future disappeared on Monday, June 24, at 3:21 pm when Caicedo succumbed to her injuries. “They did everything they could to save her but the damage to her brain was so much that she couldn’t even sustain her own life without machines,” says Usher. “The doctors realized at 3:17 that there was no activity in her brain and we had to let her go.”
Only 24 minutes later, police arrested Augcomfar and charged her with reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident and leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death, a charge that stems from her not rendering aid or assistance in an accident despite knowing injuries resulted.
The driver, however, was the last person on Usher’s minds, or on the minds of Caicedo’s parents, who came right away from Russia to see if their presence would help her.
“She never regained consciousness since the hit,” says Usher. “I didn’t even have a chance to talk to her. I mean, I did, but I don’t know if she heard me or not. I hope she did…for her, the nightmare is over, at least.”
Now, the community is gathering to help Usher through a campaign started by Freeman on the charitable crowdfunding website YouCaring. Freeman first got to know Usher when he first came to the U.S. around 2000. She and her husband hired Usher to help renovate their home, helped him improve his English and took him under their wing and later, after Usher met Caicedo, they helped her as well. At publication, over 100 have contributed about $7,000 to the cause.
Usher was stunned by the support and touched that so many wanted to honor his wife’s memory.
“She was one-of-a-kind. She was an amazing, loving person who would help in anyway she can,” he says, remembering how she saved old bread and fed it to the birds, strove to make customers at the Kraverie feel at home and once made him drive to a nearby gas station in the rain to help a stranded man without gas.
“People are doing this because they knew my wife and were touched by my wife. I wish I appreciated her more when I had her. I did, but now I realize..I get the whole story. She was amazing.”
Heo is currently running the Kraverie as Usher and his family deal with the tragedy and the restaurant is still planning to take its yearly vacation on the first week of July. After that, however, Usher says he will be devoting even more time and effort into the popular eatery.
“The restaurant was my wife’s child. She worked there to make that happen harder than all the rest of us combined,” says Usher. “We’re going to make sure to keep open and bring the same service to people to honor my wife.”
He’s also doing something about the deadly habit she begged him to quit. “Every time I have the urge, I ask for help to not think of cigarettes–and it goes away! She’s looking after me and helping me be a better me.
“I want to be the way she wanted me to be, like she would be right next to me,” says Usher. “I don’t want her spirit to go away. I want to keep her close.”
UPDATE, June 26: 12:08 pm: The date on which Caicedo died and information about her previous food businesses have been corrected.
Photo courtesy of Jayne Freeman