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Tragedy Spurs London Pedestrian Safety Campaign

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A week before Christmas 2009, a 16-ton bus left Thomas Kearney ’91 lying in a coma on London’s busiest shopping street with his lungs collapsed and his skull fractured on both sides. Amid shouts by bystanders to “leave him alone,”Hamza Benkhadda, a 16-year-old schoolboy from Hackney who had rushed over after witnessing the accident, held Kearney’s bleeding head in his hands and cleaned his windpipe to keep him from choking to death on his own blood and tissue.

Before the accident, Kearney, a Harvard University and SAIS graduate with a loving family, a high-level job as CEO of the Africa Commodities Group and a holiday vacation planned for Cape Town, South Africa, could have been the luckiest man in the world. But what happened next was a taste of the devil’s own luck. Kearney’s foot was still on the sidewalk of Oxford Street when the bus windshield plowed into the back of his head and chest. 

“Thankfully, only a moment later my good luck returned,”he said, “when Hamza Benkhadda, who had just been trained in lifesaving as a participant in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards Program, ran over, ignored the shouts from the crowd to keep away and saved my life.”

Although his family was prepared for the worst, Kearney pulled out of a coma after two weeks against all odds. His full recovery took two years. “In my case, being a SAISer was instrumental in my recovery,”he said. “London-based SAIS classmates Arnold Holle B’94, ’94, John Kremer ’91 and John Metzler ’91 were frequent visitors to the Royal London Hospital when I was in a deep coma, and as I was recovering in later months. I am convinced that seeing them regularly during my waking up and recovery helped reboot sections of my memory that had been effectively disconnected by traumatic brain injury.”

The accident was a life-changer for Kearney. It taught him the importance of time. “It is the one commodity that we think is unlimited when it is actually the most precious,”

he said.

“I realized that in the four months leading up to the accident, with all my traveling on business in Africa, I had only spent four weekends at home with my wife and two sons,”he added. “As I came to, it did not take me long to figure out my priorities were not where they should be.”

Pedestrianize Oxford Street

After getting back on his feet in 2011, Kearney resigned from the Africa Commodities Group and launched a campaign to pedestrianize Oxford Street.

Europe’s busiest shopping street, Oxford Street has accident rates 35 times higher than any other street in London. Transport for London (TfL) reports that 327 pedestrians have been hit by buses since 2006. Seventy-seven of them have been killed or seriously injured.

“My background is in the mining industry, and if I ran a company that had the same mortality rate as TfL has on Oxford Street, I would have been thrown in jail,”Kearney said.

Kearney has collected more than 1,000 signatures from 26 countries to reduce the speed limit on Oxford Street. He is also supporting the New West End Company, which represents 600 local stores in the area, to push an initiative to reduce bus traffic and partially pedestrianize the area.

“What I would really love to do is to get NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a huge Johns Hopkins University supporter and a graduate, to sit down and talk to London Mayor Boris Johnson about everything he has done to make Broadway safe for pedestrians and cyclists,”he said. Bloomberg’s 2009 transportation reforms have resulted in a pedestrianized Times Square, with other areas in Manhattan soon to follow suit.

The SAIS Experience at Work

When not promoting his campaign, Kearney is running his recently opened international coal industry advisory and brokerage firm, TM Kearney & Company. The firm serves as an agent for European and Asian buyers of international seaborne coal, with a focus on imports from the coal basins of Russia and South Africa. Although his workload is still intense, he has only a short commute from his Hampstead home and spends more time with his wife and sons.

The diversity of Kearney’s management duties—from lobbying in London to advising firms on coal transactions in the former Soviet Union—shows the breadth of the SAIS experience, he said.

“SAIS is more than just an academic experience,”Kearney said. “You leave the place with a hopeful outlook and a can-do approach that defines you. And he may not know it now—but London Mayor Boris Johnson will know what SAIS stands for after my campaign is successful, too.”

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