Swedish businesswoman Christine Bjarkby can’t help but think about Savannah every day.
But it’s not a romantic memory of historic squares or moss-draped oaks that brings the Georgia city to mind. It’s the pain.
Ms. Bjarkby visited Savannah in April 2009 for a Swedish-American business conference. After a dinner on a dark, windy evening, a group of about 25 people were enjoying a stroll back to their hotel.
Ms. Bjarkby and fellow Swedish economic developer Nils-Eric Svensson were discussing the importance of international relationships when they came to Oglethorpe Avenue and Bull Street. One in their party stayed on the sidewalk to take a phone call, while Ms. Bjarkby and Mr. Svensson started across Oglethorpe, staying within the crosswalk’s parallel white lines.
They didn’t see the pickup truck until it was too late.
“Suddenly when we were walking across the crosswalk I just started flying,” she said. “When I woke up there was shouting and screaming and people trying to save Mr. Svensson.”
Mr. Svensson was pronounced dead that night at Memorial University Medical Center. For Ms. Bjarkby, 46, the accident marked the beginning of a long and painful struggle back to physical and mental health.
She suffered a broken hip and pelvis and a fractured sacrum (the bone at the base of the spine). Though she has regained a semblance of normalcy, the injuries have significantly affected her work. As a foreign-investment recruiter for western Sweden, she was a frequent air traveler before the accident. Now, it’s painful to sit for extended periods of time. The pain is always with her.
“I’m reminded of it every day and every minute, actually,” she told GlobalAtlanta in a telephone interview from Sweden.
In addition to the broken bones, Ms. Bjarkby has battled a gnawing sense of guilt over the fact that she survived while the 61-year-old Mr. Svensson passed away.
After the tragedy, she wouldn’t be blamed for avoiding Savannah, but she’s returned twice since the accident.
“I felt quite early that I had to go back. I am that kind of person that would rather meet my problems than to run away from them,” she said after her most recent visit.
In some ways the trips were therapeutic. In February, Ms. Bjarkby surveyed the intersection again, hoping the visuals would fill in her sparse memories of the event. She also visited friends who had made her feel welcome despite the difficult circumstances.
“During my stay in Savannah I was hospitalized. I had a lot of visitors and support from both the local government and other private persons in the city which supported me enormously, which made me very comfortable,” she said. “I felt very safe during that period.”
In July, Ms. Bjarkby returned again, this time for business. Now working for the region of Sjuharad‘s investment promotion agency, she’s determined to build business with Savannah, a desire she says is a natural response to the city’s hospitality.
But those who know Ms. Bjarkby say it’s more a credit to her delightfully stubborn personality.
Jamie Wolf, director of entrepreneurial development at the Savannah Economic Development Authority, was a key organizer of the 2009 conference. She met Ms. Bjarkby for the first time at the hospital.
Within a few days, Ms. Bjarkby was “doing business from her bed even though she was on a hundred million painkillers,” said Ms. Wolf, who’s now close friends with Ms. Bjarkby. “I went every day because she was such an inspirational woman, and she was clearly different.”
Ms. Bjarkby’s upbeat outlook also inspired Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson.
“When I went to the hospital to see Christine, her attitude was so positive until it made me feel much better, because she wasn’t bitter about it,” Mr. Johnson said.
The mayor was “very distraught” over Mr. Svensson’s death, which came the day after he signed a partnership agreement with the city of Vaxjo. The fact that Ms. Bjarkby has returned to Savannah “means a lot,” he said.
“We built an ongoing relationship that still is strong today,” he said. “She is a very, very unique person. I have the greatest respect for her, and I’m glad that we are working to hook up these communities.”
Mr. Johnson sent flowers to Ms. Bjarkby on the anniversary of the accident. In November, he visited her and Mr. Svensson’s widow while attending an eco-building conference in Sweden.
Savannah Alderman Larry Stuber and Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague accompanied the mayor on the Sweden trip.
One of the highlights for Mr. Stuber was a jovial dinner in Ms. Svensson’s home. She showed no sign of self-pity or bitterness toward Savannah for the loss of her husband, he said.
“We jived, even though I couldn’t hardly understand a word she was saying,” Mr. Stuber said.
Mr. Stuber worked with Ms. Bjarkby to put together the recent delegation from the city of Boras, Sweden, where Ms. Bjarkby lives and works. Led by the city’s mayor, Ulrik Nilsson, the group shared its experience in producing energy from municipal waste.
The visit has both sides talking about further cooperation, a testament to Ms. Bjarkby’s wish that Mr. Svennson’s death should not be in vain.
“She is more determined than ever that the way we honor Nils is to make a long-term commitment happen,” said Ms. Wolf.
The first official link is a memorandum of understanding between Savannah College of Art and Design and the University of Boras, which have committed to work on “smart-textile” programs together, Ms. Wolf said.
Whatever happens between the cities in the long run, Ms. Bjarkby will be back to Savannah.
“It’s a very, very special bond and it will be a very important bond to me in my life,” she said. “I will of course always find possibilities both in my private life and in work to come back. It seems quite natural. It’s like my second city.”