Last Nov. 14 was a night Tom Turner will never forget. He was a passenger in a car that skidded on a wet Tennessee back road, careened into a bridge and flipped over into the creek below.
A member of the 101st Airborne's air assault division at nearby Fort Campbell, Turner had been used to long falls from helicopters. But on Nov. 14, as he recalled yesterday, there was nothing to break the fall.
He has been paralyzed from his lower back down ever since.
"I thought I had cashed in my chips. All my life now I consider a bonus," Turner, 22, said. "I should have died there, but I didn't. I was lucky."
Sept. 1 was another memorable night for Turner. That's when he was carried off "sultan-style" in his wheelchair from Memorial Stadium and arrested for refusing to obey a policeman's order to move from an entrance ramp where he was watching an Orioles game. He was told the wheelchair presented a fire hazard.
At the time, Turner was parked in the upper deck of Section 9, where most of his friends sit. The special sections for the handicapped in wheelchairs are on the lower deck in Section 40, behind home plate, and Section 29, over the visitors' bullpen in right field.
Section 40 contains some of the best seats in the house and can accommodate seating for five people in wheelchairs and a companion each. Section 29 -- initially picked by the Veterans Administration nearly 20 years ago as a good seating area for the handicapped -- can seat about 10 persons in wheelchairs, plus a companion each.
The Orioles also make provisions for the handicapped who can sit in regular chairs to do so while an attendant locks up or guards the wheelchair.
But, Turner said, he doesn't want to be segregated from his friends and finds the view from Section 29 terrible -- "The pitcher looks like he's three inches tall."
"I've had to learn what my limits and capabilities are since the accident," he said. "That's why it seems so senseless to go to a place like Memorial Stadium and be stuck way back, to be put in an atmosphere like you're not wanted -- out of sight and out of mind."
As a result, Turner, two other wheelchair-bound Oriole fans and Disabled In Action, a handicapped activist group, have filed suit against the City of Baltimore and the Baltimore Orioles.
The suit alleges a violation of a 1973 federal law requiring cities receiving federal aid to provide integrated and adequate facilities for the handicapped, according to Philip L. Marcus, Turner's lawyer.
Turner and company sought unsuccessfully last week to get a temporary injunction barring the Orioles from playing any American League playoff or World Series games at the stadium. A hearing on the merits of the case is to be scheduled later -- after the playoffs and, as all Baltimoreans believe -- the World Series.
Associate City Solicitor William Hughes said the city -- via the department of recreation and parks that runs the 25-year-old stadium -- is not in violation of the law.
"The stadium predates the law so, in a sense, it was grandfathered in," Hughes said, quickly adding that the city nonetheless began improvements before the suit was filed. Special toilet facilities, telephones and drinking fountains, for example, may be ready in time for the playoffs.
Oriole General Manager Hank Peters is distressed by the complaints. "We certainly are not trying to battle the handicapped or make things unpleasant. This stadium has always been a model for assisting the handicapped," he said.
"Our files are filled with letters from handicapped people and organizations thanking us for the treatment they've received here."
Members of the Oriole staff, the Colts and representatives of the city, including Douglas Tawney, head of the Recreation and Parks Department, have met with the plaintiffs and other handicapped organizations recently to plan permanent improvements for next year and temporary ones for the playoffs and World Series.
Because the complaints came in so late in the season and because of the club's legal obligations to season ticket-holders, no major structural changes can be made this year. But the club is arranging special ticket sales for the handicapped.
Turner and the other plaintiffs called the temporary measures unacceptable yesterday, but praised the Orioles, the city and the Colts for agreeing to work together on a permanent solution.
On a permanent basis, the city proposes to double the capacities of Section 29 and Section 40, expanding into adjacent sections, including Section 32, where some handicapped persons have expressed a desire to sit.
By next season, there could be accommodations for 50 wheelchair fans, plus their companions. But, like the other fans, the handicapped have not come out in consistently large numbers until this season.
Saturday, for example, there were only two wheelchair-bound fans at the rain-soaked park. On Sunday, there were six, spread evenly in sections 29 and 40, for a doubleheader on a clear, fall day.
Their reactions to the accommodations for the handicapped were generally favorable, although all said the seating should be expanded.
In Section 40, June Livingston beside her son, Mark, 15, who has had muscular dystrophy since he was 4.
"When we've come to games in the past we've had to hold him in our laps because the disease has progressed so much that he can't sit in a regular chair," she said. "This is better, but they need to do it for more people."
Smith, paralyzed from the knees down since birth, said he would like to sit in Section 34 where he could catch foul balls. "I don't want to be treated differently just because I'm in a wheelchair. If someone wants to try to trample me, I'll just puch 'em over so I can catch it," he said.
Jack Prial of Elkton, Md., paralyzed in a car accident, was not enthused. "I support the suit. I don't like watching from this vantage point (in Section 29). It's too damn far from the action and I resent very much being put in a segregated seating area. I don't live in segregated housing so I don't see why I have to be put in a segregated seating area."