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Crossing the Rubicon

erena1upr2ufb2.jpg     What Olga Hepnarová did on 10.7.1973 wasn’t something which you could attribute to a sudden nervous breakdown or affect. On the other side, however, it wasn’t an action preceded by a long, carefully orchestrated plan. It was maybe something which Olga Hepnarová had on her mind for quite some time, but which was finally triggered by a sudden accumulation of irrational acting in her mind, thus making her modus operandi more or less a matter of momentary improvisation. And this despite the fact that, already two days before the crime (i.e. on 8.7.1973), she wrote the letters, in which she roughly describes what she’s about to do, and then later admitted to indeed having certain plans in her mind long before she finally committed her crime.

In the days leading to the crime, Olga Hepnarová’s views on people were already firm and very negative. It could be said that certain patterns for her perception of feelings which she had about other people were forming in her already from her early childhood. The events of 1964 then acted as a catalyst for what was about to follow. At that time, her already false interpretation of the other people’s attitudes towards her only got falser by letting in her own feelings of injustice, hatred and growing urgency and desire for revenge. Almost ten years passed since the year which, in my view, triggered certain reactions in the mind of Olga Hepnarová, up to the point when she’d finally commit her crime. About halfway through that period, in 1967, less than 16-years old Olga wrote: “I HATE PEOPLE”, and then presented all the reasons and explanations why it is like that and what led her to make such claims.

So when was it exactly when Olga Hepnarová finally crossed the Rubicon and took a path from which there was no way back? That moment arrived on 10.7.1973, at around 11:00 in the morning. Up until that point, all what she had done could still have been taken back – the destroyed Trabant, the borrowed truck, and many other things. But then she did something similar which another young man named Jan Palach did some four years ago – she threw in the mailbox the letters in which she detailedly described what she’s about to do. Now I don’t want to compare these two cases at all, as they’re similar more or less in only two things: young age of both Hepnarová and Palach and the aforementioned letters which they wrote.

In my view, it was exactly the holiday which Olga went on with Miroslav D. just before her crime that, in a way, forced her to make a hasty decision and finally commit what she’d been thinking about for a long time. After a few days of certain mental relief, during which she’d been accompanied almost exclusively with Miroslav D. and his relatives (and during which we can assume that, M.D, with him already knowing her manners, often acted as a certain intermediary between her and his relatives), she likely began to realize that she once again had to return back to the environment in which she didn’t feel quite well. After all, the now well known incident which happened during their return somewhere near Ostrava, and which even Miroslav D. described as “extraordinary” and “never seen before with her”, may suggest exactly that. The fact is, once she came back to Prague, her life would never be the same, as few days later, she’d be sitting behind the wheel of Praga RN truck and readying herself to finally carry out her intentions.

neh1ph.jpgThe actual accident happened at 01.45 p.m. on a straight stretch of the Obránců míru avenue (“Defenders of Peace” in English; now it is named after Milada Horáková) in Prague 7 in front of house no. 9 and within the area of the local stop for the trams driving from Letná towards the Strossmayer’s square, just before the crossroads with the Veverkova street. The road had a two way, undivided traffic flow, tram tracks in its center which were on the same level as was the road, and a surface paved by small setts. At the time of the accident, the surface was dry and in good condition, without canalization and slightly bulgy. The lane in the direction towards the Strossmayer’s square was 3,4 m wide, and had a slope of no more than 12 ‰. The car traffic was on the medium level, whilst the average amount of pedestrians passing near the site of the accident was high. At the time of the accident, the weather was sunny and visibility very good. As the expert witnesses later stated, there was absolutely no chance for the driver to be blinded by the sun. When Olga Hepnarová approached the tram stop with the truck, circa 32 m before the tram stop pole she began to steer the truck towards the pavement. With some 18 m remaining to the pole, the truck was already driving on the pavement in its entire width. The pavement was 3,8 m wide and its curb had a height of around 10-12 cm. As Hepnarová continued her ride on it, she eventually caught 20 people, who were standing there waiting for the tram, and also damaged the shop windows on three shops. Three people died on the scene, another five succumbed to their injuries later in the hospital. Apart from that, six people were injured badly, another six lightly. When the truck stopped and its engine stalled, Hepnarová remained sitting in the cab until the arrival of one of the local VB members. She didn’t appear to have any signs of alcohol intoxication, as was later confirmed by the breath test which eventually turned out negative. Later on at ÚSL, they also took two blood samples of her, with one of them being sent for forensic testing.

erena5uubfb.jpgAfter the accident, the truck remained almost entirely on the pavement, except for the left front wheel, which was positioned diagonally on the road. Near the same left front wheel, a part of the road sign reading “Pedestrian crossing” was lying on the road, and behind the left rear wheel was a broken pole with the remains of road signs. The left front fender was bent inside the edge of the tire, thus making the wheel unable to move or turn, and there were clear signs of friction from the fender on the tire’s surface. The right doors were squeezed in, and its paint intact. The expert witness who arrived at the scene conducted a test of the brakes and also the whole brake system, and concluded it was fully functional without any evident defect. The engine’s function, however, wasn’t checked and the driving functions couldn’t be tested because the front wheels were blocked by the fenders. Around 9 m before the tram stop post, a skid mark from the right wheels with a length of 1 m was visible on the pavement. Considering this fact, it’s quite interesting to review what the expert witnesses later found regarding the brake system. That is: the front wheels were braking with the same brake force, the right rear wheel would block during the braking, and the left rear wheel practically didn’t brake at all. After the expert witness finished his on-site brake tests, the vehicle had then been secured for further examination.

What was exactly happening in the cab during the accident we can only guess... Nevertheless, there are some signs which suggest that the manner in which Olga Hepnarová acted during the accident was anything but coldblooded. With such heavy vehicle like Praga RN, there wouldn’t be any problems to continue with the ride even after being slowed down from the impact of human bodies. The fact that the engine stalled was clearly the result of a rapid decrease in speed and at the same time also the direct consequence of using the 4th (highest) gear, which Hepnarová switched to before steering the truck towards the pavement. Normally, an experienced driver like her would surely opt for gearing the speed down, but as some findings suggest, she actually took her foot off the gas pedal for a second, and maybe even used the brakes (as stated in the report from expert witnesses). One interesting fact in the end: during the inspection of the cab, a wooden balk with a size of 8x10x20 cm had been found under the brake pedal.

As an irony of fate, the day on which the accident occured also saw the last part of the soviet series “There’s No Way Back” being broadcasted in the evening prime time by the then Czechoslovak Television...

Used abbreviations:

ÚSL – Ústav soudního lékařství; Institute of Forensic Medicine
VB – Veřejná bezpečnost; Public Security Service