As Omar Monroig stepped into the intersection of 51st and Tonnelle Avenue on March 23, he didn’t know he was moments away from the end of a rich life, lived to the fullest.
He had made plans with his friend Arnaldo Arroyo to get a couple of drinks. It was two days after Monroig’s birthday. The two friends began to cross the street, Arroyo walking in front, when he heard a loud sound.
Monroig was struck by a dark-colored 2001-2004 Toyota Camry, which fled without stopping, according to police.
Arroyo said later, in police terminology, that Monroig “hood surfed” the car for 110 feet before he fell to the roadway and the driver sped off into the night.
His main concern in the moments following the accident was to tend to his friend.
“I ran over to him and again my concern was for no one else to hit him, hurt him or harm him,” he said. He stayed by Monroig’s side, risking his own life to make sure that “another car didn’t finish him off. Never in my wildest nightmare would I think that somebody wouldn’t stop.”
But the driver fled the scene.
“It’s unbelievable to me that somebody’s out there sleeping, eating and getting dressed everyday that did this. How do you live with yourself?” – Arnaldo Arroyo
‘Your husband’s a bull’
Monroig fought for survival for eight days, but the injuries he sustained were too severe and he died on April 1. His family feels confident that the staff at Hackensack University Medical Center did all they could.
“I believe in my heart that they did everything that they could, at least I think that,” said Jorge Monroig, Omar’s brother. “I remember the doctor just grabbed one of my family members and he said ‘Your husband’s a bull and he’s tough and we’re not gonna give up on him.’ That was so passionate and that’s the type of doctor that Omar would want for any one of us. We said he’s gonna baffle the doctors and we talked about them calling it the ‘OM Factor.’” The doctors were so optimistic about Monroig’s recovery that they were discussing with the family surgeries he would have to undergo nine months to a year later.
The nurse and staff cried the day that his brother passed away.
“‘We get a lot of people in here, but none like your brother. We really took a personal interest in him,’” said a staff member, according to Jorge.
Honoring his life
So deeply loved was Monroig that 25 to 50 people daily came to the hospital and 500 to 1,000 people came to the wake held at Biondi Funeral Home in Nutley.
Family and friends have banded together to honor his legacy. One of his best friends, Danny, along with Monroig’s widow, have begun a Memorial Page on Facebook as of April 18th that is an homage to Omar. The site is a place where family and friends can pay tribute. The site allows them to tell stories about Omar Monroig and has a “give” button for donations people may want to provide to ease the financial burden his widow faces to pay for their son’s college tuition.
Another great friend, Johnny, was the one that initiated a $10,000 reward.
“This is a collaborative effort,” Jorge said. “No one person is doing more than another, which is why we call ourselves ‘Team Omar.’”
The driver is still at large
“We wanna help the police and we want to help Omar,” said Jorge Monroig. “We wanna find who did this... That will help people be aware of this and spread the word. We’re not looking for a witch hunt, we’re not looking for every person to flood and waste the time of the police, we want them to give us good tips and good information. I think that’s what the idea behind the reward is.”
According to town spokesman Phil Swibinski, a sketch distributed to the media on April 13 was created from a witness account. It depicts a white male, age 50-70, with “tan or olive skin,” weighing 220-250 pounds. The suspect is approximately 5’8” to 5’10”, has brown hair and dark eyes, speaks with an accent, and has a “noticeable” mole near his mouth.
Anyone with any information regarding this man’s whereabouts is encouraged to call the North Bergen Police Department at (201) 392-2100.
“We went to the news, the police handed out flyers and that’s how they met one person that was able to do the sketch because we kept putting the word out,” Jorge Monroig said. “Hopefully this person doesn’t do this to anybody else. Readers have to understand that it could happen again. Hopefully this person makes it easier on himself and turns himself in, because eventually they are gonna find you.”
North Bergen police have been notifying body shops, glass shops and other locations about the vehicle they are seeking. They have checked video footage from Tonnelle Avenue, which is how they obtained a description of the vehicle. A list has been generated of all vehicles that meet the criteria and they are expanding their search.
“The sketch coincided with the time the fliers were handed out in asking for the public’s help,” said Officer Dino Apostolakos of the North Bergen Police Department. “The fliers renewed awareness. Every lead, no matter how insignificant or how large, is being exhaustively followed up regardless of what type or how it came in, everything from vehicle descriptions to possible witness statements, 911 calls. Every possible angle continues to be reevaluated on a daily basis. This remains one of the highest priorities to the Police Department.”
A life lived to the fullest
Body-building was Omar Monroig’s hobby from the age of 36 onward. He began with semi-professional status, and eventually attained national standing. One of his aspirations was to qualify for a national competition. The past couple of years he got into UFC fighting and he would go down to Atlantic City. Omar’s dedication and discipline to the craft of body building was such that he would wake up at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning to do cardio and then head to work as a construction manager.
“He started his body building career at 36 because his main focus was putting a roof over his son’s head,” said Jorge Monroig, “and to make sure he was a good husband, taking care of his priorities. That’s what I want the readers to understand. Omar’s legacy was being a father – not a good father, a great father.”
“He was an enabler, a life coach, a friend, a brother, a father,” said Arroyo. “He was such a good person, what a good heart he had. He loved everybody. We called him at work ‘The Gentle Giant’ because of his body building. It’s unbelievable, tomorrow is going to be a month and I just can’t believe it.”
Omar was also an avid blood donor who gave blood once a month. He was O+ which made him a universal donor.
He would go out of his way to do things for people he loved. Jorge Monroig said that although it was a cliche, that Omar would give you the shirt off his back.
“I remember one time we were redoing the bathroom and I was telling him that I wanted to do the vent on the ceiling and I said ‘This is the second one I bought, I think the specs are off, it won’t fit.’ He says, ‘I’ll help you out with it’ and he drove down over 20 miles and that’s the type of person Omar was. He came and within 10 minutes he set it up for me.”
A bond between working men
Arnaldo Arroyo and Omar Monroig had an instant friendship from the moment he began working for Arroyo’s crew. They worked together for roughly 19 years. His friends say their bond went much deeper than a mere friendship, it was a brotherhood.
“After the first day that we worked together, it was like people thought that we knew each other for 10 years,” Arroyo said. “We were so close that he told everybody in our industry. So I’m putting together an email that I’m gonna be sending out to everyone in the industry on Monday, thanking them for being with myself and the family through such a hard time.”
Arroyo and Monroig would often frequent a restaurant in West New York called La Cachita. They would meet there mornings before work where they would order steak and eggs, which he loved. The staff had affectionately named Omar “El Grande” (The Big). He didn’t speak much Spanish, so Arroyo would jokingly make Monroig order for them.
“How can I remotely even begin to move forward?” said Arroyo. “This is not that you walked into a doctor’s office and they tell you, ‘Sorry to tell you this, but you have terminal cancer and you have two years.’ It wasn’t that you were 80 years old and you died. This was a 42 year old beautiful human being that was crossing the street behind me. It’s unbelievable to me that somebody’s out there sleeping, eating and getting dressed everyday that did this. How do you live with yourself? This is a devastating tragedy. I will never forget that day in my life.”
Last week was Jorge’s birthday, and in honor of his brother he smoked a Fuente cigar with his brother-in-law, an indulgence Omar enjoyed on occasion. Jorge even drank his brother’s favorite alcoholic beverages, El Presidente, Cognac and Patron. He also went to one of Omar’s favorite restaurants, Chili’s.
Jorge’s sister Mayda Gonzalez said something to Arroyo that resonated with him: “I lost a brother but I gained a brother, ‘cuz I love you with all my heart and I will always be by you.”
“What Jorge said I will rephrase,” Arroyo said. “We miss him every second of every day. I’m lost without him at work. When people think I’m talking to myself, I’m talking to him, because I’ll be looking at something, reviewing something and say ‘What the hell would you do in this situation?’ He would help me so much, and it was things that he didn’t have to do but he would just do it. Omar gravitated to everybody. Every once in awhile, after a couple of drinks in him he’d say, ‘By the way – I love you man. I’m gonna hug you, but then I’m gonna run away.’”
Vanessa Cruz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.