At the beginning leg of a 500km walk to promote Tibetan independence from China, the Dalai Lama’s nephew was struck and killed by a vehicle along a dark Florida coastal highway, about 400 metres from where he planned to rest for the evening.
Jigme K. Norbu, 45, was headed south in the same direction as traffic, following the highway’s white line when he was hit, according to the Highway Patrol. The impact crumpled the vehicle’s hood and shattered the front windshield.
The driver, 31-year-old Keith R. O’Dell of Palm Coast, was not charged. He and his five-year-old son in the vehicle were not injured.
Norbu, who lived in Bloomington, Indiana, and was active in a Tibetan rights group there, had started with others on a “Walk for Tibet” from St Augustine south to West Palm Beach on a highway that runs the length of the state’s Atlantic coast.
A Florida couple who met Norbu about an hour before the accident said they were worried about the fading sunlight and urged him to stay at their place for the night. Norbu was behind schedule and seemed agreeable to change his plans.
“It was becoming dusk. We were worried and we were concerned he wasn’t going to have daylight,” Gary Collins told The Associated Press.
The Collins’ suggested Norbu stay at their condo, but he wanted to spend the night under the stars, so they drove ahead and made preparations at their Hammock Wine & Cheese Shoppe, about a quarter mile from where Norbu was killed. They left a towel, bar of soap, three bottles of coconut juice, a can of stuffed grape leaves and crackers on a table outside.
“He was smiling and happy. He had as much positive energy as you could imagine,” Gary Collins said.
His wife, Damian Drum Collins, took a picture with Norbu before he continued his journey. Norbu was wearing running shoes and a sandwich board-like sign that said: “Walk For Tibet Florida.”
“It is such a sad thing. I was honored to see him. I said, `I’m sorry to stop you,’ but he said he didn’t mind because he wanted to raise awareness for his cause,” Damian Collins said.
At the accident site, a vase held seven roses on the side of the two-lane highway, where the speed limit is 55 mph. There are no street lights where Norbu was walking, but there is a bike path along the other side of the street, in front of a community centre.
“It is pitch dark, pitch dark. You can’t see anything. There is no illumination here,” said 60-year-old Debbie Clark, who lives a half mile from where Norbu was killed, about 40 kilometers south of St. Augustine on State Highway A1A.
A dishwasher at a nearby restaurant was killed in September along the same stretch of highway as Norbu, who was dead when emergency services arrived.
Norbu, the son of the Dalai Lama’s late brother, Taktser Rinpoche, has done similar walks several other times, including 1,500km in 2009 from Indiana to New York.
After the four-week trek from Indiana to New York, Norbu’s feet were full of painful blisters and were missing nails and the feeling in one toe.
“But I feel energised, because the cause itself energises me,” Norbu told AP then, after emerging from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel.
That walk marked the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan rebellion against Chinese rule that resulted in the exile of his uncle, who is Tibet’s top spiritual leader.
In northern India, officials at the Dalai Lama’s office in Dharmsala could not immediately be reached and the Tibetan government-in-exile had not commented as of late Tuesday.
Norbu’s late father was a high lama who was abbot of a monastery when the Chinese invaded. The brothers fled into exile following the 1959 uprising.
Rinpoche, who died in September 2008 at 86, was a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University in Bloomington while serving as the Dalai Lama’s US representative.
The Dalai Lama has visited Bloomington several times. The city about 80km southwest of Indianapolis is home to the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and Kumbum Chamtse Ling Temple.
Arjia Rinpoche, the centre’s director, said they would be praying for his family.
“We deeply regret the passing of Jigme Norbu and appreciate his work to help Tibet and the Tibetan people,” Rinpoche said in a statement.
Rinpoche and the TMBCC staff will be in prayer today for Norbu and his family and will release information this week regarding a pending community prayer service to honor Norbu and his work for the Tibetan people.
China claims Tibet as part of its territory, but many Tibetans say Chinese rule deprives them of religious freedom. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan autonomy and fomenting anti-Chinese protests.
A phone listing for O’Dell, the driver, could not immediately be found.