I want to introduce you to a truly thankful man. His name is Richard Smeraldo of Clearwater, Fla. After you hear his story, I promise, you will never forget it.
Richard, a happy-go-lucky 74, has always loved fireworks, so this past Fourth of July, he, his wife and a female friend went to a fireworks show at a nearby community, ironically, called Safety Harbor. There, sitting in an open field among 16,000 others, including children and their families, Smeraldo looked up into the night sky and oohed and ahhed with delight.
“It happened at a time when the fireworks had paused,” he told me at a recent dinner where we met. “It was right before the big finale. I thought I was hit with a baseball bat or a big rock ... it was like something big just hit my nose.”
Smeraldo suddenly realized he was “bleeding all over the place.” His friend sitting on the grass in front of him also cried out in pain. She felt as though something had violently poked her in the back.
That “something,” as it turned out, was a 9mm bullet. Police believe it had been shot into the night sky by a reckless Independence Day celebrant and that it had ricocheted off Richard and struck his friend. Because a bullet can travel as far as 3 miles (depending on the caliber), police still have no suspect.
Think about the path this stray bullet took! It came down out of the sky with such force that it tore through the bill of Richard’s baseball cap — leaving a perfect hole — before nearly slicing off parts of his face.
“The bullet went through my nose, out my nostril, through my chin and hit a medallion that my daughter had given me,” Smeraldo told me. I couldn’t help but notice the healing scars on his face, as he used his finger to trace the bullet’s path as he spoke. I imagined what would have happened to this kindly man had his head been in just a slightly different position.
The emergency room doctors believe Smeraldo’s metal medallion necklace kept the bullet from penetrating his chest and perhaps killing him. That conclusion still causes the retiree to shake his head in disbelief.
He told me the necklace had been a recent gift from his 28-year-old cancer-stricken (but now recovering) daughter. He had it engraved with a biblical verse his mother often quoted, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
“I sure felt like someone was watching over me that night,” he said in a quiet voice.
Coincidentally, that same July Fourth night, Florida TV stations had run a news story — unseen by Smeraldo — featuring a woman who lived in nearby Ruskin, Fla. Sandy Duran looked into the camera and begged people with guns not to shoot them into the sky in celebration. She explained that six months earlier, on New Year’s Eve, her 12-year-old son had been hit squarely on the top of his head by an errant bullet after he had stepped outside to ring in 2012. He was hospitalized for six months and endured several surgeries.
“Diego was not in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. “He was in the right place. He was right in front of his house where he should be safe.” Today, Diego is recovering but has short-term memory problems.
The Duran family launched an education campaign against celebratory gunfire they call “A Bullet Free Sky,” and on their website they sell bracelets, T-shirts and bumper stickers to help finance their effort. Also offered now are replicas of Smeraldo’s lifesaving necklace — lovingly made by Smeraldo, who feels a real kinship with Diego.
“This is not to get people to not have guns,” he told me on the phone the other day. “It’s all about the education for people who happen to own guns.”
Smeraldo and Diego’s stories are not as rare as you might think. In Decatur, Ga., 4-year-old Marquel Peters was in church with his parents on New Year’s Day 2010 when a bullet smashed through the roof, struck him in the head and killed him. Last year, celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Day took the life of Karla Michelle Negron, 15, in Puerto Rico.
On that same day in Miami, a 6-year-old tourist from Italy was hit by a stray bullet that punctured his lung. Over the years, intoxicated celebratory shooters in New York City, New Orleans and Orlando have been tracked down and prosecuted on charges ranging from weapons violations to manslaughter.
All across the country, law enforcement agencies are now gearing up for the anticipated next round of holiday gun madness caused by those who simply don’t think through the consequences of their wildly irresponsible actions. Geez, even a kid can tell you, “What goes up must come down.”
After years of senseless maimings and death, this stupidity still goes on — even at Christmastime, according to reports I’ve read. Isn’t it time to get tough on these people? In some states, randomly firing a gun into the air is automatically considered a felony. Yet, in far too many others, it is a mere misdemeanor.
In researching this worldwide problem, I discovered that in the Republic of Macedonia a person found guilty of firing off a gun during a celebration faces a mandatory prison sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Sounds about right to me.