Family, Friends Recall Photographer Killed in Bizarre New York Accident


KYOTO — For the Aimi family, 1991 brings bittersweet memories of New York City, jazz music and the shocking death of a loved one on the Brooklyn Bridge.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of 32-year-old Akira Aimi, a photographer from Kyoto whose promising career was cut short by a defective cable on the famous bridge — an accident the New York Times called “bizarre” and a “tragedy.”

“Through his work, Akira tried to be a cultural ‘bridge’ between Japan and the United States,” said his mother, novelist Toshiko Aimi, weeping. “But he couldn’t make his dream come true because, in the end, America crushed him.”

The accident happened on a breezy June 28, 1981. Akira Aimi had left his photography studio on Lexington Avenue near 56th Street to do some location hunting for future photo sessions.

Familiar with the downtown streets, the two-year resident of New York strolled along the Brooklyn Bridge around 5 p.m. The sunlight was still too bright for photos, he thought. So he waited around for it to get a little darker.

“I’m in Brooklyn now, I’ll be back soon,” Aimi said, phoning his Manhattan studio from a coffee shop. It was the last time anyone ever heard from him.

He was almost across the bridge to the Manhattan side when suddenly two 180-meter-long, 5-cm-thick wire cables snapped and whipped onto the pedestrian walkway below. One cable shredded dozens of wooden walkway planks. The other thrashed Aimi from behind and knocked him down.

“I heard a heavy thump,” one witness told the New York Times. “I turned around and saw the cable swinging and a man (Aimi) lying on the ground. …The man was lying in a pool of blood.”

The force of the diagonal stay-cable fractured Aimi’s skull and broke his left arm. He was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he was listed in very critical condition. He soon fell into a coma.

The Aimi family rushed from Kyoto to New York.

“When I saw my son in the hospital, I knew there was no hope of recovery,” said Toshiko Aimi, her eyes red with tears and her voice choking. “The doctors said even if he lived, he would be like a vegetable for life.”

Akira died one week later on July 6.

Investigators attributed the cause of the defective cables to acid from pigeon droppings that had eaten through the century-old bridge wires.

Within days of the accident, Aimi’s wife, Mariko, a fashion designer, hired a lawyer and launched a $50 million damage suit against the city.

The suit languished in the legal system until 1988, when an out-of-court settlement was reached. The widow and the Aimi family each received the equivalent of ¥15 million as compensation.

But money, and time, have not healed all the emotional wounds. Aimi’s mother remains bitter that her deepest desire — to mount a memorial plaque in her son’s name at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge — has fallen on deaf ears.

“I just want Americans to understand that we’re all human beings and that I want to see my son’s name on the bridge,” she said. “If that was done, I would have no more grievances.”

Jun Aimi, Akira’s brother and a Tokyo city planner, wants to keep alive his older brother’s two loves: photography and jazz music.

He has published his brother’s work in a photo book titled “Whisper Not,” named after the 1957 Benny Golson jazz tune that Akira loved.

The book features Akira Aimi’s photos of some of the world’s most renowned musicians: jazz saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, trumpeter Terumasa Hino, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, reggae legend Bob Marley and blues guitarist B.B. King, among many others.

Friends and family describe the late photographer as generous to a fault and well-liked both in and out of professional jazz circles.

After his death, a friend from New York wrote the Aimi family in Kyoto, saying: “I realize now, Akira was like a brother to me. His heart is pure. I will never forget Akira — or what I owe him.”

“My sadness is great,” the letter continues, “(but) the sadness is a reminder to me to do good. Akira is a good example for all of us to live by. Many people in New York miss him dearly….”

A decade after her son’s death, Toshiko Aimi is planning a commemorative ceremony this year to revive interest in her son’s death and to push for the memorial plaque.

An appropriate place for the ceremony, she feels, is Akira’s “Whisper Not” photo studio in Roppongi, which is still run by his former partner.

While the lasting effect of Akira Aimi’s photographs speaks for itself, perhaps his untimely demise is best summed up by the lyrics of “Whisper Not,” the jazz classic that inspired him in life:

Sing low, sing clear, sweet words in my ear
Not a whisper of despair, but love’s own prayer.
Sing on until you bring back the thrill
Of a sentimental tune that died too soon…”