Three days before Tzvi Ference drove his car head-on into an 18-wheeler on Florida’s Turnpike, he broadcast his pain on Facebook to family, friends and anyone else who may have been listening. He told them he tried to commit suicide in a head-on collision on Interstate 95, but backed out at the last second.
“15 minutes after I started driving I was almost onto the turnpike. I started saying Sh’ma Yisrael [a Hebrew prayer that translates to ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’]. First slowly then faster and over and over again. I was overcome with such emotion that I started crying. Crying hysterically to Hashem [God] to help me. To help me with my pain. I was crying so hard and there were so many tears. I pulled over at the entrance to the turnpike and cried nonstop for over 10 minutes.”
About 11:40 p.m. Sunday, Ference followed through on his mission: He drove his 2009 Hyundai Accent southbound in the northbound lanes, colliding head-on with an 18-wheeler near the Griffin Road exit in Broward County.
The truck driver tried to swerve and lost control, jack-knifing the semi across the turnpike. Ference’s car flipped and landed upside down.
The 26-year-old died on impact. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and he didn’t have his headlights on.
Two people in the truck, the driver and a woman sleeping in the cab, walked away from the crash. The driver, Yadian Palomino-Leyva, was wearing his seat belt, but the woman, Leany Cervantes-Rodriguez, was not.
According to a December post on Ference’s blog, a dark and honest chronicle of his intense battle with severe depression, he attempted suicide seven times at that point. A previous attempt included an 18-wheeler, as well.
Ference wrote frankly about his brushes with death. Ten years ago he stood on a busy street, ready to fling himself into traffic.
My heart speaks up, ‘No Tzvi, a small car won’t do. Only a truck can kill you.’
I wait. A few cars pass. Finally an 18 wheeler approaches. I learn forward ready to jump. Ready to die.
My heart speaks up, ‘No Tzvi, don’t let a truck kill or paralyze you. Die alone. Die with your own two hands. Die with some dignity.’
Ference’s Facebook post about his Wednesday attempt mentioned his plan to “quit life once and for all” and that he was “more determined than ever in my life to commit suicide.”
He concluded that Facebook post, one of many about his public battle with mental illness, on a thankful note about the power of prayer.
Ference was a deeply religious man, said his rabbi, Marc Philippe, of Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, where he lived.
But Ference was also deeply troubled. On Saturday, he posted about an incident at the temple in which security guards turned him away from prayer.
“I was trying to reach out to the Rabbi and other members because I was feeling lonely and depressed. Instead of receiving calls back I was ignored and they felt threatened by me reaching out for help,” he wrote on Facebook.
Ference was banned from the temple for two months because of “harassing comments” that Philippe declined to describe. He said Ference was calling and texting in a way that made girls uncomfortable.
“It’s a serious issue — everyone in the community needs to be aware of mental illness,” Philippe said. “You don’t just ask a cancer patient to shake it off and get better.”
Four years ago, University of Miami issued a “safety advisory,” warning people on campus about Ference, then 22, “who has repeatedly harassed University students and officials.”
“This former student has an outstanding campus-wide trespass warning, and is not permitted on UM campuses,” according to the campus safety alert. “His recent behavior warrants his removal from campus.”
The loss of Ference is being felt deeply within the community, especially from those who tried to reach out to him, Phillipe said.
“It’s not only a loss,” the rabbi said. “It’s a catastrophe.”
But in his own words, Ference wrote: “I have depression but it does not define me.”
He wanted to finish college and become a math teacher. He liked to read spy novels and hang out with friends on the beach. He found pleasure in kayaking, biking, swimming, walking, writing, watching and playing baseball. He was afraid of heights.
Ference frequently wrote online about his struggle with mental illness.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a way to separate yourself from depression. A way to live a better and more happy and successful life,” he wrote. “You realize that you can reach the light and live in the light of happiness instead of the darkness of depression.
“There is no stopping my momentum of recovery. I am well fueled and ready to leave the darkness once and for all.”
He enjoyed spending time with his family, especially as the eldest of six children. He looked forward to having a romantic relationship and children of his own.
His mother, Tamar Ference, is a doctor of physiatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, whose battle with breast cancer was chronicled four years ago in the Miami Herald.
In November 2014, Tzvi Ference wrote an op-ed for the Herald titled, “Thoughtless drivers wreak havoc.”
My mother tells me all the time that she is petrified driving on Miami roadways because of these reckless drivers who speed and zig-zag between cars on the highway with no regard for other people's safety.
Enough is enough. How many people have to die or become disabled for life before something is done about this?
Something needs to be done before another person's life is tragically cut short by a reckless driver.
To get help
If you or someone you know is battling depression, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Someone is available in English and Spanish 24/7.