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After grate accident, a dream shatters

Pawel Swierczynski was seriously injured in July near a construction site on Route 128 in Westwood when an iron grate slammed through the windshield of his car and struck him in the head. A state report blamed engineering missteps for the accident. Pawel Swierczynski was seriously injured in July near a construction site on Route 128 in Westwood when an iron grate slammed through the windshield of his car and struck him in the head. A state report blamed engineering missteps for the accident. (GEORGE RIZER/GLOBE STAFF)

When Beata Swierczynski saw the state trooper at her front door that morning in July, she assumed he was collecting money for charity. After all, life was going so well for her family, Polish immigrants with two young children and a nice house in the suburbs, that she couldn't imagine that anything might go wrong.

The trooper, though, told her that her husband, Pawel "Paul" Swierczynski, had been in a bizarre accident: An iron storm grate on Route 128 had slammed through the windshield of his car and struck him in the head. A helicopter was transporting him to a Boston hospital, and his injuries were life-threatening. She should go quickly if she wanted to see him.

With that, the world that Beata Swierczynski had tirelessly built with her husband since they arrived from Warsaw in 1994 crumbled. She said she summoned her 11-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter for a rushed drive to Boston. "If we have to say goodbye, I want them with me," she thought.

Two months later, Swierczynski is not only alive, he returned home to North Easton last Thursday, which is nothing short of a miracle, say family friends.

But there was no homecoming party for the badly injured man: Most of the time, he just sits, unable to make eye contact, carry on a normal conversation, or remember his children's ages.

Gone is the quiet, self-confident engineer who loved to cook Italian food for dinner parties, Beata said. He is encased in a back brace from chest to pelvis and fearful of almost everything, including the stove where he used to cook.

"It's not like daddy came home and daddy will play now," she said in her first public remarks since the accident July 27 on a busy commuter route traveled by 150,000 vehicles a day. She expects to be both single parent and single bread-winner for many months. "I lost the companion that I used to have," she said.

State transportation officials released a report last week blaming engineering missteps for the crash, which took place on a section of highway in Westwood where roadwork had forced the rerouting of northbound traffic into the breakdown lane and directly over the storm grates. A passing truck flipped one of the grates into the air.

"It could have been avoided," said Beata, 37, who was by turns composed and emotional in a 90-minute interview at her lawyer's office in Quincy. During the meeting, which was requested by the Globe, she said she has filed a lawsuit against five firms involved in the road project, in part because "I don't want anybody to suffer the way we did."

It's too late, however, to restore the American dream that Beata and Pawel, 40, had so eagerly chased. They both had good lives in postcommunist Poland - she had been a teacher, he an engineering student - and she had never seriously considered leaving. But Pawel became smitten with this country while visiting friends in the Boston area, so she followed him to an apartment in Stoughton.

"He is a wonderful person that I met when I was 7, and when I was 10, I told everybody he was going to be my husband," said Beata, recalling their childhood at the same Warsaw elementary school. "I thought he was gentle and trusting, and he was never going to hurt me."

They married soon after their arrival, and in September 1995 she gave birth to their son, Alan.

Life here was challenging, but the Swierczynskis, both fluent in English, were willing to work hard. For years, she was a hostess and he was a cook at La Scala restaurant in Randolph, where he developed his affinity for Italian cooking. Then, she resumed her teaching career at the Montessori School of Quincy, while he took a job as an engineer at Lab Medical Manufacturing, a firm in Billerica that makes medical devices. Pawel also enrolled as a part-time student at Northeastern University, where he planned to finish his engineering degree.

Though the couple was extremely busy, the Swierczynskis were unfailingly generous, said one family friend, looking after other people's children, remaining active in Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Church in South Boston, throwing dinner parties for friends.

"She would pick me up somewhere, and there would be a little girl in the car, and she would say, 'It's so and so's daughter, and she was running late, so I said that I would take her for the day,' " said Rosine Avenshar, a friend and principal of the Montessori school.

By 2004, when Swierczynski got his engineering degree, the couple had their daughter, Alison, and their dream house on a quiet street in North Easton. They finally had enough money to travel, visiting Poland for the first time in five years, and Beata was recently promoted to a management job at the school, which allowed her to go home earlier.

On the morning of the accident, Pawel was following the same 46-mile route that he always took when he left for the office at 5 a.m. But, this time, he passed the road construction in Westwood at around 5:30 a.m. just as the grate hurtled through the air.

Swierczynski had time enough only to raise his right hand and turn his head away before 250 pounds of iron hit him above the right ear.

The accident left him with a collection of broken bones, including vertebrae and a finger on his right hand, as well as a gash on the side of his head.

The biggest problem was bleeding inside his skull and potential damage to his brain, the family's lawyer, Robert W. Norton, said. Initially he needed breathing assistance from a ventilator and could not move the left side of his body, raising fears of paralysis.

As Swierczynski regained consciousness in the days after the crash, he tried to talk, but then fell silent except for unexpected moments when he would suddenly rouse as if waking from a bad dream, his wife said.

"I was basically staying at the hospital," she said. "When he woke up, he would call for me" - often in Polish - "how can you leave?"

During those first weeks, Beata discovered how many friends she really had, as delegations from the church, the Montessori school, La Scala and even her son's football team brought food or took turns looking after the children. Well-wishers completely filled her home voicemail, but she could not bear to erase the messages.

"I feel like I am under an umbrella because of all these people," she said.

Eventually, Swierczynski improved enough to leave Brigham and Women's Hospital to continue his recovery at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. On Sept. 20, doctors sent him home. He could walk gingerly, but he was still numb on his left side and wore a brace to protect his spine.

Swierczynski has no memory of the accident, but he bears emotional scars that were as evident as the physical ones when his wife drove up to the hospital entrance to take him home.

"He sat down in the back," she said. "He didn't want to sit in the front. He was afraid."

Since her husband's return, Beata has kept the house quiet, not even allowing neighbors to visit. She said her husband is easily overwhelmed by talking and frequently gets a headache when he attempts to read.

His neurologists cannot tell her whether his condition will improve, though they warned that he should not try to work again for a year.

As a result, Beata is bracing for a difficult year, with only one income and one adult to take care of the children and manage the household.

"He used to be the one who took care of me," she said, her voice cracking. "He would say you take care of everyone else. I have to take care of you."

Scott Allen can be reached at

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