By Abby Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a sunny day in April 1981, Shaler police Sgt. Ralph Hoffman was patrolling Mount Royal Boulevard when a car full of young men sped past him him with a blue volunteer firefighter’s light flashing on its roof.
He knew there was no fire call in the area and, therefore, no reason for the light or the speed. He turned his cruiser around to pursue them. Because they were just a half mile from Hampton as they headed north on the busy road, he radioed ahead, asking for any police officers in the next township that might be near. But before he could finish that request, he saw a plume of smoke rising ahead of him.
Twenty seconds later, Sgt. Hoffman reached the intersection of Mount Royal Boulevard and Sutter Road, one known to be dangerous because of a hump in the road that obscures drivers’ views.
The speeding car had slammed into the back end of a Ford Mustang convertible stopped to make a right turn. The impact pushed it into oncoming traffic, causing a truck to plow into the front of it, and explosions erupted from both ends. The car’s driver, a 17-year-old, was ejected from the burning car, and she, too, was on fire.
Cindy Lott was burned so badly that her family was told she wouldn’t live through the night. But she did and beat the odds, earning the nickname “Wonder Woman,” according to newspaper articles at the time. She proved those superpowers in the 41 years since, becoming a school administrator, a mother, earning a doctorate in education and opening a dance studio known for adapting instruction to young people with disabilities.
Over the years, Cindy Lott Zurchin reconnected with a few of the people involved in her rescue and recovery but not her first first responder. That changed in January.
Three months ago, the father of Ms. Zurchin’s longtime best friend, Thomas Fredrick Rios, passed away, so she went to the funeral. As close friends and family mingled at a lunch that followed, the “energy” of one guest kept stealing her attention. It made her ask someone who that man was.
The instant she heard the name “Ralph Hoffman,” she rushed to him and burst into his conversation: “Excuse me, I have to ask you, were you a Shaler Township police officer in 1981?”
“I think you were the first person on the scene of my accident at Mount Royal and Sutter.”
“The fire?” he asked, though it was more of a statement. “Oh my God, are you that girl? You were burned so bad and all of your hair was gone!”
He called over his wife and son, who also knew exactly who she was because Mr. Hoffman had spent the past 41 years talking about “that girl.”
“To see the shape she was in, it was, oh my God, out of the past. Out of that tragedy. And now, I’m face-to-face with it, and she’s a beautiful lady,” Mr. Hoffman told the Post-Gazette. “It was fantastic, after all these years, here’s that girl.”
Piecing it together
Cindy was an accomplished dancer and model at 17, having racked up a few professional gigs by that young age. On the afternoon of April 21, 1981, she finished a day of her senior year at Shaler High School and was driving to teach a dance class when her life changed forever.
What she knows of the accident was mostly pieced together over time through police reports, newspaper stories and some firsthand accounts.
Cindy usually wore her seatbelt but didn’t that day, allowing one of the impacts to launch her out of her car. Although the ejection caused its own trauma — a puncture wound to the back of her skull from the glancing blow of the soft-top convertible’s latch — she was later told the use of a seatbelt, in this case, almost certainly would have killed her.
She knows a Frito Lay snack truck driver making a delivery to a convenience store at that intersection used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames emanating from her body. She knows that a woman ran out of her house and covered her with a jacket. Someone else did the same, and someone from the convenience store covered her and both jackets with a large blanket.
She remembers hearing muffled voices and knowing she had one chance to let anyone know who she was. She gathered her strength and said her name, where she lived, who her parents were and where her father worked before losing consciousness.
After being transported to West Penn Hospital’s burn unit — yet another detail gathered later — she saw slits of bright light through her badly burned eyes. She remembers the relief she felt hearing her mother’s words, “This is mind over matter, Cindy. You’re going to make it.”
But she knew that would be true after hearing from her grandmother, who’d passed away years before.
‘It’s not your time’
In her hospital bed, Cindy felt that she was inside a glowing tunnel. Its light was bright and warm, leaving her peaceful and pain free. She heard her deceased grandmother’s voice saying, “It’s not your time. Go back.”
In addition to her external trauma, Cindy had a badly burned lung. She could hear medical personnel talk about how she wouldn’t make it through the night, and, at her family’s request, a clergyman performed the Catholic sacrament of last rites, done when a person is thought to be dying.
“Stop saying that!” she screamed inside her head. “I’m going to make it. My grandmother said I’m going to make it!”
How to heal
Les Voit was part of a lay pastor duo who’d started a hospital ministry, called TLC, just a few months before Cindy’s accident.
He went on to become an ordained minister at age 77. Now 82, with decades experience caring for people, he still remembers Cindy as the “third miracle” achieved by TLC’s prayerful presence.
“She spent weeks in that hospital, but then Dr. Jesus took over and he did it all,” he said.
Cindy sustained more surgeries than she can count, although the number is something like 17. Not to undermine the influence of Western medicine or the divine, but she attributes “99%” of her recovery to mindfulness meditation and visualization, a very uncommon therapy at the time, taught to her by a family friend and physician.
“I visualized every day new skin cells growing, fighting any infection,” she said. “Some of the medical people pooh-pooh-ed it, but a lot of people were like, ‘This is where Western science meets Eastern science.’ ”
‘Doesn’t happen this way’
By that fall, she was a student at Duquesne University, thanks to a neighbor and fellow student who was able to drive her there each school day.
Although she knew professional dance was no longer an option, her years as a dance teacher proved influential, making her first education course feel like home.
She became a teacher in one of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ most challenging areas. She found success first as a math teacher who taught by infusing movement and mindfulness into her lessons. “What you focus on is what you get more of, and we’re going to focus on everyone having a great day,” she’d tell them. “Even if you get just one answer right today, that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Later, she taught kids who were repeating the ninth grade for the second or third time.
After class one day, a male student put a loaded gun in her face while his friend held her hands behind her back.
“The first thing in my mind was, ‘Nobody dies on my watch, and that includes me,” she said, drawing on confidence built long before. Although she is slender and only 5-foot-1, she broke free from the boy who restrained her. As the kids ran for the door, she grabbed one of their jackets and snatched the gun, avoiding tragedy and astounding the police who arrived soon after.
Then, in 2016, doctors spotted signs of an extremely rare form of eye cancer that is often fatal because of delayed detection. “I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘This doesn’t happen this way. We never find this. This is a miracle.’”
She got the message.
“This doesn’t happen this way. We never find this. This is a miracle.”
“As these things keep happening you think, ‘OK, there is a reason I’m still here,’” she said. “Each time something has happened, it’s made me more determined to work with people to help them along the way.”
What was missing
Ms. Zurchin, now 58, of Franklin Park, and Mr. Hoffman, of Allegheny Township in Butler County, met again in mid-March as a part of this story. But this time, it was at the crash site, a place they hadn’t been together since the accident.
The meeting came just days before Mr. Hoffman’s 90th birthday. Ms. Zurchin couldn’t let “the big 9-0” go by without a card and presents, although she asked rhetorically a few days earlier, “What do you buy for the man who saved your life?”
More than ever, Mr. Hoffman could say that her presence was enough.
He knew she had survived the accident, but not that she teaches mindfulness to other survivors of trauma, or that she’s responsible for turning disabled young people into dancers, or that she visits local burn units to educate staff about the experience from a patient’s perspective.
Always the police officer, although retired for 29 years, Mr. Hoffman reconstructed the accident that day, showing her the position of her car relative to where her body was thrown, details she’d only assumed until then. “Over the years, 1,000 accidents later, you never faded from my mind,” he told her.
She tucked her hair behind her ear and adjusted her bangs to reveal some of the scars most people wouldn’t know are there.
As they hugged, Ms. Zurchin simply said “thank you” repeatedly while Mr. Hoffman tried to deflect credit to the firefighters and lay people who also came to her aid.
While she’s grateful to them, too, she wouldn’t allow him to dodge the spotlight. “It’s so emotional to see you and thank you for everything you’ve done. It was so important, and it saved my life,” she said with tears running down her cheeks.
They talked about crossing paths at the January funeral and whether the late Mr. Rios might have orchestrated it, as his daughter, Theresa, believes. But for Ms. Zurchin, it was just the most recent example of “it doesn’t happen this way” for a woman whose mere existence seems preordained.
“I always say everything happens for a reason, and even though that was an absolutely terrible experience, it certainly did change my path,” she said.
“Life is good 41 years later.”
Abby Mackey: [email protected], Twitter @AnthroAbbyRN and IG @abbymackeywrites.