St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Letter to the editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message

Lesson in hard knocks

Thanks to a bicycle helmet, a sixth-grader is alive after poles strike him.

By JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008

Johnathon Ferland, 11, talks about being hit in the head by a pole while his mom Tara Bickler, 36, listens. He was wearing his helmet, which probably saved his life.
[Jim Damaske | Times]
[Jim Damaske | Times]
When Tara Bickler saw her son Johnathon Ferland, 11, at the accident scene, he looked bloodied and bruised. "It was a parent's worst nightmare," she says.

LARGO - A helmet can be a lifesaver when you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That's the lesson Johnathon Ferland, 11, learned Tuesday after an accident on the way home from school.

Johnathon, a sixth-grader at Largo Middle School, stood with his bicycle at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change.

A blue Chevy pickup rolled down a nearby embankment, felled two metal sign poles and barely missed mowing down Johnathon.

But a yellow pedestrian sign sliced Johnathon's neck a few inches from a major artery. The other - a heavier, 40-pound walk-signal pole - crashed down on his head.

If not for the black Razor-brand helmet he was wearing, the boy would have died, police say. The force of the collision cracked the helmet's hard plastic shell and split the polystyrene foam inside.

Johnathon doesn't remember much of his near-death experience. He heard someone shouting, "Move, move!" Then he saw the truck barrel down the incline.

"I was trying to move out of the way, but it wasn't fast enough," he said.

The pole knocked him unconscious and dropped him to the street.

Largo police Sgt. John Sevos was working an off-duty detail at the other side of the parking lot of Fifth Third Bank at the corner of Clearwater-Largo Road and Eighth Avenue SW.

Sevos said the pickup driver, whose name was not released, parked in the lot and walked toward the bank. For some reason, the truck started to roll backward. The driver ran back to the truck and tried to put on the brakes, but they didn't work.

The driver tried to steer the 1979 Chevy away from the intersection, but couldn't keep it from striking the signs. The driver was later cited for his faulty brakes, police said.

When Tara Bickler, Johnathon's mother, made it to the crash scene Tuesday her son looked very bad - bloody, bruised and strapped into a neck collar.

"It was a parent's worst nightmare," said Bickler, a nurse.

Sitting in the back of an idling ambulance, Johnathon regained consciousness. He told his mother he was afraid of going in the helicopter that was preparing to rush him to Bayfront Medical Center.

Bickler told him he would be strapped down so he wouldn't be able to see how high they were going.

Johnathon was later transferred to All Children's Hospital. Besides a general soreness and a slight concussion, he had a serious cut on his neck that required stitches. He also had assorted cuts on his face from where he hit the pavement.

The family does not have health insurance, Bickler said.

Largo Middle principal Fred Ulrich visited Johnathon at the hospital the night of the accident. That's when Bickler pressed the lucky helmet into his hands.

"She wanted me to send a message to other students about the importance of wearing a helmet," Ulrich said.

So Ulrich told the story to the school's 1,100 students during morning announcements.

He prefaced it by saying there was a happy ending. Then he showed off the cracked helmet.

"I'm sure I got everyone's attention," he said.

Ulrich described Johnathon as "cherub-like" and innocent, as if from another era.

The 4-foot-11, 93-pound boy plays football, gets all A's in school and likes pre-algebra best of all his classes.

When he grows up, he wants to be a veterinarian, he said, but not one who has to deal with blood and gore. He said he doesn't like that.

School resource officer Chris Burke said he is organizing a small awards ceremony for Johnathon when he returns to school on Monday. He'll also give the boy a new helmet.

And how does Johnathon plan to get to school?

He'll ride the bike he got for Christmas, of course, just like every other day.

Mom is not so sure.

"I'm going to wrap him in bubble wrap," she said.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at or 727 445-4157.

[Last modified January 30, 2008, 23:59:28]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters