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Science magazine staffer killed in motorcade route accident

By Ashley Halsey III and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; B06

Gridlock was not often among the worries of Constance Holden, so dire predictions that it would tie traffic in knots this week near her downtown office didn't change her routine.

She would, as usual, ride her bike to work.

At 68, she biked about 3 1/2 miles from her home in Mount Pleasant to her office on New York Avenue NW most days when the weather allowed.

"She had an old-style upright bicycle," said Colin Norman, editor of Science magazine, where Holden had been a writer since 1970.

With dozens of world leaders in town for the Nuclear Security Summit, which began Monday and ended Tuesday, major traffic hassles were expected, and cycling looked to be one of the best ways to get around town for those comfortable in the saddle.

But Holden's ride home on Monday ended with her bike and body crushed as she set out from the office by a truck assigned to guard the motorcade route.

Holden, known to friends as "Tancy," complemented her red hair with bold red glasses.

"She was unique person, very warm, lively," Norman said. "She was never afraid of confronting conventional wisdom. She had two pianos in her house, and she used to play duets."'

She was also an accomplished painter.

Friend and Science magazine colleague Eli Kintisch had a special word for her.

"She was absolutely sui generis, which means unique," Kintisch said. "It is a devastating day in the lives of all of us."

Ginger Pinholster, spokeswoman for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, parent body for Science magazine, said Holden was "highly regarded for her coverage of biological and genetic bases of human behavior."

In addition to writing news features, she edited a weekly journal called "Random Samples," a compendium of developments in the scientific community.

"She was a highly accomplished science journalist," Pinholster said. "She won awards in 2004 for a series of articles she did on schizophrenia, depression and other mental health issues. She was well regarded for delving into social science topics."

"She was extraordinary, passionate and funny," Pinholster said.

The best available information Tuesday indicated that about 6 p.m. the day before, Holden retrieved her bike from the rack in the garage of her office at 1200 New York Avenue.

All day long, beneath the windows of her building, motorcades of black sport-utility vehicles carrying presidents and prime ministers to and from the nuclear summit had been passing on New York Avenue, escorted by police cars and motorcycles with lights flashing and sirens screaming.

Another approached as Holden snapped the clasp on her helmet and wheeled her bike down the sidewalk, nearing the crosswalk at 12th Street. Big trucks -- some city dump trucks filled with soil to add weight, others military vehicles -- had been used all day to block intersections against suicide bombers when the motorcades passed by.

A pair of D.C. National Guard trucks were being rolled into position by a guide wearing a yellow reflective vest. Another yellow-vested person was directing traffic at the intersection, and a witness said Holden heeded a warning to step back toward the curb.

The second truck hit her.

The sound of the impact drew the attention of people watching the motorcade pass from office windows.

Four people -- one in military uniform, another a traffic control officer and two civilians -- rushed to her side. Three of them reached for cellphones to call for help.

Questions remained to be answered Tuesday: Did Holden roll out from the sidewalk, unaware that the first truck was followed by a second? Was the truck driver's perch in the cab so high that it was difficult to see Holden below? Did the roar of sirens deafen Holden to the rumble of the approaching truck?

D.C. police spokesman Hugh Carew said it has not been determined whether the driver or Holden was at fault.

On Tuesday, six bouquets of flowers had been placed near the outline of a bicycle that had been spray-painted to mark the spot by investigators.

Later, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association placed a white "ghost bike" near where Holden was killed, a reminder of the need for all travelers to pay attention to one another, even under the stresses of getting around in a crowded city.

Staff writer Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

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