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Suffolk police officer back in uniform after recovering from head-on fatal crash

Suffolk police officer Christian Vidal returned to work, a year after he was critically injured in a crash with a drunken driver and placed in a medically induced coma.  Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A flash of light, blue sky. Being cut from his patrol unit. Snippets of a helicopter ride. A phone conversation with his wife, one where he told her how much he loved her. That he'd be home soon.

These were the things Suffolk police Officer Christian Vidal said he remembered in the moments following the crash that nearly killed him last September on Fifth Avenue in Bay Shore. Things he thought he remembered, only to learn later, "Apparently, I didn't remember anything at all."

That much of it had been imagined.

Vidal returned to uniform last week after a yearlong ordeal that once seemed insurmountable. He's on modified duty, working with the Medical Evaluations Section at Suffolk Police Headquarters in Yaphank. Working with officers who have medical claims, on the other side of the fence on which he found himself in the aftermath. He's grateful to be alive, is hopeful he'll eventually get medical clearance to return to full duty.

That someday he'll again be a patrol officer out of the Third Precinct.

"But," Vidal said Thursday, "I am at peace with whatever happens. This past year, I've done a lot of reflecting. I've always said family is the most important thing in the world. After my accident, I realized that even more."

Vidal, 35, was on patrol in what cops describe as "the rifle car," a marked SUV equipped with weapons, special interior dividers and exterior bumper bars, when the unit was struck head-on by a drunken driver at 6:10 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019 — less than an hour before the scheduled end of his overnight tour. The other driver, a 28-year-old man from Brentwood, was killed.

That the crash didn't also end tragically for Vidal, that he didn't become a line of duty/end of watch victim was, he said, but for the grace of God.

The way the bumper bar absorbed the impact, the way the passenger compartment crushed around him. The fact he was young, healthy, athletic. The medical attention he received. The experimental procedure by doctors. All the other unexplained, inexplicable, variables. All played a role in his survival.

He said he flatlined twice. At least, that's what they told him afterward.

The collision itself remains a blur. Vidal had, in fact, spoken with his wife, Cindy, who is a teaching assistant, an hour before the crash. He recalled it as an elaborate conversation. She later told him most of it hadn't happened.

He recalls seeing a glimpse of morning sky as he was cut from the SUV, and remembers bits and pieces of the medevac flight to Stony Brook University Hospital, he said. Frontline responders later told him he'd been conscious and answered their questions. He can't remember a word of it.

What followed were countless operations and medical procedures. Doctors repaired his ruptured aorta, the fractured orbital bone, his shattered pelvis, his dislocated hip. He had lung failure and suffered Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Had to have a tracheal intubation, was on life support in a medically induced coma for the better part of 18 days. There were medications that he said caused hallucinations. His wife, friends and family spent countless hours at his bedside. He was visited by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Vidal was released from Stony Brook on Sept. 27, 2019 and was sent to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson to begin rehabilitation. He learned to go from needing a wheelchair and walker to being able to walk again on his own.

He still attends outpatient rehab three times a week.

"I knew I was pretty banged up," Vidal said. "It never really hit me how bad it was until I went to St. Charles."

In fact, he said, it was then that he first saw footage of the crash on TV, and that was when he was able to reflect on all that had happened for the first time. Alone.

"I realized how fortunate I was," he said. "That day, the first day I was by myself, I realized how lucky I was."

He fought back tears as he said this.

At a time when police have become a focal point in America, Vidal could be the poster boy for good men and women in uniform, officials said.

He is an immigrant, having moved to Long Island with father Jose, mother Gloria and sister Stephanie from Cali, Colombia, at age 4. That was 1989. He was too young to join the service when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, but he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his 17th birthday — though he was still a rising senior at Longwood High School, where he also played soccer.

Vidal served aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear aircraft carrier, and rose to petty officer second class, an operations specialist dealing with radar and navigation systems. As part of a joint Army-Navy operation, he spent six months of active duty on the ground in Baghdad, then joined the New York Air National Guard following his discharge and spent another six months in Iraq in 2017.

He does aircraft engine maintenance with the National Guard, working on C-130 Hercules transports and Sikorsky HH-60 helicopters.

He was a member of the NYPD before joining the Suffolk County Police Department.

"Officer Vidal is the epitome of a public servant — from serving his country in the armed forces and now as a member of the SCPD and National Guard," Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said. "He has shown incredible determination following this horrific crash … [and] has tirelessly pushed himself throughout the year to gain the strength needed to return to work — proof of his dedication to the department and public service. We are grateful that his faith, will and friends and family were able to get him through this difficult time and it is our hope his condition continues to improve. "

As Vidal said: "I just always … wanted to give back and say thank you for all the opportunities I've had."

The biggest frustration now, the 5-foot-5 Vidal said, is that he wants to do things his body won't let him do. He has screws and plates in his pelvis and hip and will eventually need hip replacement, he said. "That's my frustration. I can't run like I used to, I can't jump." He can't play club soccer anymore.

He said his wife and family wanted him to retire following the crash. But, he said, they all understand his continued desire to be a police officer.

He said he's forgiven the driver who nearly killed him and is sad the man died. He sends his thoughts and prayers to the driver's family.

"He had a bad day, made a bad decision," Vidal said.

Vidal recently began teaching an online Bible class in affiliation with the Jesus Christ Lives Ministry in Smithtown. "I would never have seen myself doing this before," he said. "It just felt right."

Mostly, he's just grateful.

"When I was in Baghdad," he said, "there were times I was scared I was going to die. Now, with my faith in God, I don't really have a fear of dying. … I've made it through this, made it through a lot of other things. I guess I'm just at peace."

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