Lucky to be Alive
Nicholas Pasichuke drove from Alamo to Santa Barbara to visit friends—but he crossed paths with a mass murderer.
If Alamo’s Nick Pasichuke had arrived at the party earlier, or had lingered over his dinner longer, he would not have been in the path of a mentally unstable man on a mass murder spree. But 19-year-old Nick had no way of knowing that his perfect weekend getaway would become a terrifying chapter in the Santa Barbara massacre that shocked the world.
This is Nick’s story.
The evening of Friday, May 23, was warm in Santa Barbara, the kind of night that draws crowds of college students to parties in the Isla Vista neighborhood. Alamo resident Nicholas Pasichuke was one of those students, walking in the balmy evening, looking forward to seeing old friends and blowing off some steam.
Nick, a college student on summer break after finishing his first year at the University of the Pacific, had driven down to Santa Barbara from his home in Alamo that morning.
It was the Memorial Day long weekend, and Nick and three female friends from high school had embarked on a last minute road trip to reunite with more friends who had gone to San Ramon Valley High.
The group was staying at the apartment of Tyler Martin, Nick’s best friend from many years of playing competitive water polo, a sport that had earned Nick a scholarship to his Division One college in Stockton.
The afternoon in the seaside college town was like a big reunion, all hugs and high fives. Nick and Tyler played video games and devoured a plate of the best nachos Nick had ever tasted. After dinner, the group left Tyler’s apartment and headed for a party a few blocks away. As excited as Nick was about the night, he was really looking forward to the next morning, when he and Tyler could get on their surfboards and spend all day in the ocean—or as Nick calls it, “the ultimate swimming pool.”
“It was going to be a perfect weekend,” says Nick. “I was so excited to be there, hanging out with old friends and meeting new people.”
Then, around 9:30 p.m., everything changed.
Nick was walking along Del Playa Drive with his water polo friend Packy Eggert, who was riding slowly on a bicycle. Two of the three female friends from the drive down dawdled about 50 feet behind the guys, far enough back to see a black BMW 328i turn onto Del Playa and pull to a stop in the street. The women then saw the car make an odd shift in direction, as if the driver was pointing the car directly at Nick and Packy at the side of the street.
The women watched in horror as the driver of the BMW, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, stepped on the gas and headed straight for Nick. In an instant, the perfect night turned into a hellish nightmare. The speeding car slammed into Nick, hitting him from behind.
“I remember hearing screams and then seeing the headlights come up behind me,” Nick says. Rodger’s car was traveling at 50 mph when it hit Nick just below the knees.
Nick’s friends saw the 6’4” water polo star fly about 50 feet down the street. Packy was grazed by the BMW and fell off his bike. The vehicle careened off into the Santa Barbara night.
Tyler, who was inside a house on the same street, heard the commotion and came outside to help. Both Tyler and Packy ran to Nick, who was lying on the asphalt four houses down from where the BMW had hit him.
“It probably only took them about 10 seconds to get to me,” says Nick. “But those 10 seconds seemed like forever. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t feel my legs. It was the most helpless feeling. I’ve never been more afraid. I’ve never felt more alone.”
As Nick lay on the pavement, Rodger drove off to create more mayhem, including firing a gun out the window of his BMW at horrified bystanders and hitting other pedestrians with the car.
Before hitting Nick, Rodger had spent about two hours killing and injuring victims—murdering his apartment roommates with a knife, shooting three women near the Alpha Phi sorority house, shooting a young man buying a sandwich in a deli, and injuring numerous others who just happened to be in his path.
Less than an hour after hitting Nick, Rodger ended his own life with a bullet to the head. Police found three semiautomatic handguns and hundreds of rounds of unused ammunition next to his body in the BMW. Rodger killed six people and injured 13 others that night. The killer had detailed his plan in a 140-page online manifesto, a rambling document filled with misogyny and madness.
Nick could have ended up among the dead. When his friends reached his side, they saw that both his legs were badly broken and his face was fractured a few centimeters above his left eye. The skin from his nose flapped open at the nostril, and he had road rash and windshield glass embedded in his skin over most of his body. Tyler and Packy told Nick not to move until an ambulance arrived.
A police officer who came to the scene told them that the gunshot victims had to be attended to before paramedics could help Nick. Due to the citywide chaos, it took nearly an hour for them to arrive. Nick stared at the sky for 45 long minutes, thinking he was about to die.
“I was 85 percent sure that I was going to bleed out and die right there in the street,” he says, softly. “The other 15 percent was hanging on because of my friends telling me everything was going to be OK.
“There was a while where I was looking at the sky and wondering where I was going to go next, because nobody really knows what is out there. Just before the ambulance arrived, I almost felt peaceful about what was going to happen.
“Then, the ambulance finally got there, and everything became a blur,” Nick says, remembering the eerie expectation that he might not survive. “I got to the hospital, and I thought, ‘I’m so happy to be alive.’ ”
Jill and Jim Pasichuke were about to get ready for bed at 10:30 p.m., when they received a call from Tyler, who had waited until Nick was in an ambulance before calling his parents.
“Tyler [told Jim], ‘Nick’s in the hospital. He was hit by a car, and he has a broken leg,’ ” Jill recalls.
At the time of the call, news of the Santa Barbara massacre still hadn’t hit the airwaves. The Pasichukes quickly decided that Jim would stay home with their daughter, Katie, now a senior at San Ramon Valley High, and Jill would drive to Santa Barbara to help Nick.
“We had no idea what had actually happened, but I thought, ‘My son is in the hospital with a broken leg; I’m driving to Santa Barbara to get him,’ ” says Jill. “I thought I’d be driving Nick back home the next day. Jim said, ‘Just in case, pack a change of clothes.’ We had no idea what I was going to see.”
Jill drove south through the night, receiving cell phone calls with updates from her husband every half hour. Each call was more unnerving, as information poured in about Rodger’s murder spree. Sometime after midnight, the hospital reached Jim to let him know that Nick would need extensive surgery on his leg in the morning.
Jill remembers the drive as six hours of white-knuckle stress. She tried not to drive too fast or imagine the worst, despite the onslaught of grim news she was receiving from Jim. She arrived in Santa Barbara around 4 a.m. and went to the wrong hospital. When Jill finally navigated across town to the right medical center, she found Nick in his hospital room, awake and looking like hell.
“This is what I saw,” says Jill, showing a cell phone picture of Nick’s bloodied face, his left eye black and blue and grotesquely swollen. Jill starts to cry at the memory of seeing her son in such agony. “It was so much worse than I thought it would be. But I was just so relieved he was alive.”
Nick will never forget seeing his mom walk into his hospital room. “I felt so bad that she had to see me like that: The look on her face was pure shock,” he says. “But I’ve never been so happy to see my mom in my life.”
Jill says that, despite his gruesome injuries, Nick remained remarkably optimistic. “The first morning, he told me, ‘I can feel my feet, so I think I’ll play water polo next season.’ ”
The morning of Saturday, May 24, Nick went into a long and complicated surgery to have a titanium rod inserted where the bones in his lower left leg used to be. The impact from the car had pulverized his tibia and fibula into “kibbles and bits,” says his father, so repairing the bones was a lost cause.
Over the next four days, Jill stayed in the hospital room with her son, who did not want her to leave his side. “He kept saying, ‘I don’t want you to go, Mom. Please don’t go,” Jill remembers. “I ended up wearing the clothes Nick had brought down for the weekend.”
Nick had lots of visitors, too. The three female friends who drove down with him the day before
he was hit came to see him the next morning. Tyler and Packy also rounded up some Santa Barbara water polo players that knew Nick well to come cheer him up.
A few days after Nick’s surgery, a young man came into the hospital room. The visitor, a student at Santa Barbara City College, was another wounded victim of the massacre.
“He asked what happened to me, and I told him about being hit by the car,” says Nick. “I asked what happened to him. He pulled up his T-shirt and showed me the scars from three bullet holes. He smiled at me and said, ‘We’re alive.’ ”
Not all the visitors were welcome guests with get-well wishes. Reporters from news shows and gossip sites loitered around the hospital and outside the Pasichuke home in Alamo, pestering the family for an exclusive. “We have a security gate, which we installed 15 years ago to keep deer out of the yard,” says Jim. “It came in handy.”
“Many reporters got the phone number for the hospital room and called four to five times an hour for a couple of days,” says Nick, who eventually gave an interview to Anderson Cooper of CNN. Nick and his friends and family felt that Cooper was one of the few members of the media who respected the victims, and wasn’t trying to sensationalize what had happened.
“Someone from [one of the network morning shows] sent a huge teddy bear as a get-well gift to Nick,” says Erin Halbrecht, one of the three friends who drove to Santa Barbara with Nick. “When I saw it, I wondered if there was a hidden camera inside.”
Nick was discharged from the hospital five days after being hit by Rodger. He was covered in bruises, and doctors insisted he ride home to Alamo in an ambulance, as it was impossible for Jill to care for him by herself on the drive. At home, Jim and his friend Bob Martin (who is also Nick’s orthopedist and, incidentally, Tyler’s father) scrambled to build wheelchair ramps so that Nick could be moved into a hospital bed in the Pasichuke’s master bedroom.
Nick had planned to spend the summer lifeguarding and training for his second season of water polo at University of the Pacific. Instead, he spent nearly two months bedridden, being visited by a wound nurse every few days to clean the cuts all over his body.
Nick’s sister, Katie, came into his bedroom every morning to sit with him for hours at a time. One Saturday, Nick’s entire water polo team drove out from Stockton for a barbecue. When the players realized that Nick was stuck downstairs in a hospital bed, they put him on their shoulders and carried him upstairs so they could all enjoy the evening outside on the Pasichuke’s patio.
“The support I got from everyone was incredible; I will always be very grateful,” says Nick. “My parents were especially great: I had already put them through so much by just being a teenager, and they were just wonderful throughout this.”
When he was finally able to get out of bed, Nick started a painful and extensive rehabilitation program at Diablo Physical Therapy in Danville. Over several weeks, Nick moved from a wheelchair to a walker, and then to crutches. To relax, he and Katie went to Walnut Creek to see as many 3-D movies as possible “to get out of the house and do something fun,” says Nick.
His progress was remarkable. Bob Martin told the Pasichukes that Nick’s youth and outstanding physical fitness were key to his rapid rehabilitation. But that’s not to suggest he’s “all better.” Nick will have to deal with lifelong pain management; the titanium screws in his left ankle are particularly uncomfortable. He also has significant scarring as a physical reminder of the event. He realizes that because he is so tall and so strong, he survived. The accident would have killed a smaller person.
Nick points to a gnarly 12-inch scar on the back of his right leg, running from his ankle to his knee. “That’s from the license plate,” he says.
Even five months after being hit by Rodger’s BMW, Nick still pulls shards of glass from his skin, glass that was so deeply embedded, it has taken months to work its way out.
The Pasichukes are still shaken by the memories of seeing their oldest child come close to death, a seriously wounded victim of a horrific tragedy. They are healing and moving forward.
“The one thing I can say, after we have been through all of this, is to take the time that you have with your family and try to be in the moment,” says Jim. “We need to learn to slow down, and really take the time to cherish your family and loved ones—your spouse, your parents, your kids.”
Jim remembers saying good-bye to his son the morning of May 23, just before Nick and his friends left for Santa Barbara. Jim’s biggest concern that morning was the drive.
“I went to work a little late that day to see Nick off and tell him to drive safely,” says Jim, who works for a semiconductor company in Fremont. “I gave him a hug, and he and the girls headed out that morning. Around 5:30 p.m., I got a text from Nick, saying they had arrived in Santa Barbara safely, and I would see him again when he came home on Monday.
“We feel so lucky that our son is alive,” says Jim. “Sadly, that is not the case for other families in this situation, and our thoughts and prayers have gone out to those families since the day this happened.”
It’s mid-September, and Nick is back at school in Stockton, just starting his sophomore year. He’s been out of a wheelchair for more than a month.
Today is a particularly good day, as Nick is able to start training for water polo in the pool.
“Last night, I dreamed about swimming,” Nick says, with the enthusiasm of a little kid. “And today, I swam! My dream came true: I was able to egg-beater in the water.”
Yet not all of Nick’s dreams are good ones. He still has vivid nightmares from the trauma he experienced in May.
“I remember this one dream, where I was stuck behind a glass wall. I couldn’t move, and I had to sit there and watch person after person being killed in the most horrible ways,” Nick says. “You get used to the physical pain and knowing that it’s going to be something you have to deal with for the rest of your life. But there are things that aren’t so easy for your mind to let go of.”
Nick’s voice gets softer and sadder. “Someone tried to kill me,” he says. “They saw me walking down the street, and they decided to kill me. Life cannot prepare you for that.”
Sitting with Nick at a table at the University of the Pacific’s student center, it’s easy to see why he’s so popular with his friends and loved by his family. He’s a genuinely nice guy who sees life as a glass half full, even after all the pain and suffering he’s endured over the past few months.
He’s not able to shake hands because he broke his right hand badly when he fell getting dressed on still wobbly legs. But it was only a setback: He just had to wait a little longer to be able to fire a ball at the goal.
Speaking of goals, Nick is looking forward to returning to Santa Barbara for the perfect weekend he did not get to have last May.
Sometime after that, he’ll earn his business marketing degree.
“I can’t wait to live my life,” he says. “I can’t wait to go places and meet people. I have to say, being alive feels pretty awesome.”