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    A minor sideswipe, a harrowing ride: Inside that viral road-rage incident

    The white SUV with the shattered windshield tore down the Mass. Pike, the driver hunched over the steering wheel, a gray-haired man clinging by his fingertips to the hood. The engine roared as the driver sped up and fell back, weaving between other cars that at times appeared to be trying to box him in.

    The driver’s voice carried raggedly over the wind and din of rush-hour traffic.

    “Get off my car!” he screamed, over and over.

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    The man on the hood stayed frozen, his face inches from the spider-webbed glass, the pavement a blur beneath the wheels.

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    People in other cars filmed and shouted and called 911. “He’s trying to get him to fall off the car!” one man yelled into his phone. “He’s speeding!” his wife exclaimed. The video she shot shows the SUV accelerate out of the frame.

    On the hood, Richard Kamrowski stared at his hands. The jersey barrier to his right seemed impossibly close. To his left, all he could see were cellphones held aloft in the windows of cars.

    “How did I get here?” he wondered.

    Video goes viral

    The video footage of 65-year-old Kamrowski and the driver, 37-year-old Mark Fitzgerald, careening down the turnpike on a recent Friday rocketed around the world almost immediately. That it ended with a third stranger — 49-year-old Army veteran Frankie Hernandez — leaping out of his car and aiming a gun at Fitzgerald added an additional layer of absurdity. The story had everything: road rage, mortal danger, impossible survival, a good-guy-with-a-gun. The “Boston driver” jokes practically wrote themselves.

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    To Kamrowski and Fitzgerald, it wasn’t a joke. It was their lives. Each man says the other was the aggressor, that he feared the other man would kill him. They each have a version of what happened, and the only thing they seem to agree on is this: Each wishes he had called 911 before the encounter spun out of control. Neither did, and now they are infamous and facing criminal charges.

    Until 4:43 p.m. on Jan. 25, they were just two professional men living outside Boston in relative anonymity.

    An image from video shot by a passerby showed Richard Kamrowski on the hood of Mark Fitzgerald’s car.
    Taisha Gibson
    An image from video shot by a passerby showed Richard Kamrowski on the hood of Mark Fitzgerald’s car.

    Kamrowski owned a metal refinishing business with his wife, Debbie, to whom he had been married for 40 years. The walls of their Framingham home were covered with portraits of their three grown children, who still lived nearby, and their three grandchildren. Kamrowski and his teenage granddaughter spent nights on the couch eating popcorn and watching “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter.” He was teaching his toddler grandson how to draw, and he was delighted every time the youngest, a 5-month-old boy, grabbed his finger and smiled. He and his wife had belonged to the same bowling league for more than two decades.

    Fitzgerald was a year and a half into a job he loved, working as a scientific sales representative for a major biotechnology company, and living in Ashland. He had a bachelor’s degree in biology from Western Connecticut State University and a master of science in cellular, molecular, and biomedical sciences from the University of Vermont. He had taught undergraduate lab courses, worked as a breast cancer researcher, written his master’s thesis on breast cancer stem cells, and coauthored two peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. He was politically active, joining Black Lives Matter and The Climate Reality Project.

    Years before, as a young man, he had had trouble with the police. He was sentenced to 3½ years after stabbing a man in the stomach in Connecticut in 2006, according to court documents. But he’d since turned his life around, his lawyer said. Now, he was in a good place, excelling professionally and feeling good about where his life was heading.

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    Neither had ever been in the news across the United States, in Japan, or the United Kingdom. Kamrowski had not yet woken to hearing DJs on his clock radio calling him an idiot; Fitzgerald had not yet donned dark sunglasses to watch his attorney address a horde of assembled media on courthouse steps. The pike was still just the way home.

    A regular Friday

    Richard Kamrowski (above) said his car was sideswiped by Mark Fitzgerald.
    Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
    Richard Kamrowski (above) said his car was sideswiped by Mark Fitzgerald.

    Fitzgerald spent that Friday working from the road, making a catered presentation to a client. As he headed west on the pike in his Infiniti SUV just past Route 128/I-95, he was listening to a podcast and looking ahead to swimming laps at the gym. Fitzgerald declined to be interviewed for this article; his attorney, David Yannetti, spoke on his behalf.

    Somewhere close by, Kamrowski was on his way home, too. He’d gotten to his refinishing business in South Boston at around 6 a.m., he said, and stayed a little later than usual on Fridays, which were reserved for the bowling league. His routine was the same every week: Get home, take a nap, grab the bowling balls, and head for the lanes with Debbie. Afterward, the league would head to Uno’s. On this Friday, Kamrowski figured he could get home in time to sneak a quick nap.

    Frankie Hernandez, husband and father of three, was also heading home from work, at a Toyota dealership in Watertown, listening to WAAF on the radio and thinking about taking his two sons to hit some baseballs. Hernandez is soft-spoken, with straight-backed posture and a habit of addressing women as “ma’am.” He has never wanted to be famous for anything.

    “I want to be a regular person who likes baseball and works on cars,” he said in an interview this week, wearing his mechanic’s jacket.

    Hernandez joined the Army at 18 and served in the first Persian Gulf War, supporting a major combat unit, watching the sky over the desert light up with Scud and Patriot missiles. Thirty years later, he practiced his shooting regularly at the range, and kept up to date on gun laws and regulations. He was licensed to carry but hoped never to have to draw his weapon.

    A little before 5 p.m., Hernandez passed what he assumed was a minor fender-bender in the left lane on the pike. A pickup truck was stopped in front of a white SUV, and a man with gray hair was standing in front of the SUV.

    Two men, two stories

    What happened in these first moments seems impossible to untangle. Fitzgerald and Kamrowski tell widely diverging stories, and so far no witnesses have come forward to describe the minor accident that triggered it all.

    As Fitzgerald’s lawyer tells it, Kamrowski sideswiped his client’s SUV, then started yelling at him. Fitzgerald was trying to find a safe place to pull over when Kamrowski cut him off and forced him to stop in the left lane. (In an earlier account to officers at the scene, Fitzgerald said he had no intention of stopping, according to a police report.)

    The lawyer said Kamrowski flew out of his truck in a rage, tried to reach into Fitzgerald’s car through the driver-side window, and violently tried to open the door. Fitzgerald, his lawyer said, felt panicked and thought Kamrowski might have a gun. Unable to get in on the driver’s side, Kamrowski ran around to the passenger side, reached through the open window and grabbed Fitzgerald. He then took a stainless steel water bottle that was inside the SUV, Yannetti said.

    Handout
    Fitzgerald (above) says it was his car that was hit in the moments before Kamrowski ended up on the hood of Fitzgerald’s car driving down the Mass. Pike.

    Kamrowski used the bottle to smash the windshield, the lawyer said. Terrified, Fitzgerald felt his fight-or-flight instinct kick in, the lawyer said, and put the SUV in reverse to back away. It was then that Kamrowski jumped on his hood.

    Fitzgerald drove forward not to hurt Kamrowski, his lawyer said, but simply to get away from him. (This is also different from what Fitzgerald told officers, according to the police report. In that telling, Kamrowski didn’t smash the windshield until after Fitzgerald started driving.)

    The lawyer said his client came to a complete stop twice and demanded Kamrowski get off the car, but Kamrowski didn’t move. Fitzgerald kept driving, the lawyer said, only because he was afraid.

    “My client was the victim,” said Yannetti.

    In Kamrowski’s telling, it was Fitzgerald who sideswiped him, knocking his sideview mirror out of place, and then twice ignoring him when he shouted from his truck to pull over.

    Kamrowski said he had recently paid more than $1,000 to repair the sideview mirror and didn’t want Fitzgerald to drive away, so he pulled in front of him to force him to stop. Kamrowski said he had passed a state trooper a few miles back, and thought help would be coming any minute.

    Kamrowski said he walked to the passenger side, not the driver side, and repeatedly asked Fitzgerald to exchange papers, but Fitzgerald refused.

    Then, Kamrowski said, Fitzgerald told him: “I have a gun and I will use it.”

    (That statement is not in the police report, and Fitzgerald’s lawyer called the allegation “a lie.”)

    Kamrowski said Fitzgerald then made a sudden movement, and Kamrowski reached through the window to stop what he feared was Fitzgerald’s attempt to get a gun from the center console. But he said he missed Fitzgerald and instead came away with the water bottle.

    Kamrowski said he walked toward the front of the car after refusing to give the bottle back, and that’s when he heard the engine of the SUV rev.

    He said he can’t remember exactly how he wound up on the hood. All he knows, Kamrowski said, is the car started moving, and he was terrified of being run over or pushed into traffic.

    Kamrowski still had the water bottle in his hand, he said, so he started smashing the windshield in a desperate attempt to get Fitzgerald to stop. It didn’t work. He looked down and realized he still had his cellphone. He called 911, but he was incoherent on the line. When 911 called back, he didn’t pick up, so the operators left messages.

    “This is state 911, I had an open line and all you were doing was screaming ‘pull over,’ and then it went silent,” the operator said in one. “If you are the gentleman that is on the hood of the car, we got several reports on it, we are trying to locate that vehicle now. Thank you.”

    He wouldn’t discover the messages until much later. In that moment, as cars and pavement whizzed beneath him, Kamrowski was thinking of his grandchildren. If he let go, he would never see them again.

    Army training kicks in

    Frankie Hernandez helped bring the incident to an end when helped block in the car and pulled his gun when the car was stopped.
    Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
    Frankie Hernandez helped bring the incident to an end when helped block in the car and pulled his gun when the car was stopped.

    From his own car, Army vet Hernandez watched the SUV veer across the road. He could see other cars trying to box it in, but the SUV didn’t stop, he said. There was no way the man on the hood could survive falling, he thought. Witnesses estimated the SUV’s top speed at 70 miles an hour.

    Being in the Army taught Hernandez to be calm. Now, on the pike, as he had in the desert, he took a deep breath and relaxed his body. He knew he needed to stop the driver.

    Hernandez saw other cars maneuvering to stop the careening SUV as it sped up and slowed down, Kamrowski clinging desperately to the hood. Then, a car in front of Hernandez saw an opportunity and pulled alongside the SUV. The driver shouted: “Stop the [expletive] car!”

    The SUV came to a stop in the left lane.

    The driver who had shouted hopped out and tried to get Fitzgerald out of the SUV, but he wouldn’t budge.

    Hernandez steered in front of the SUV, blocking it in, and leaped out with his handgun drawn.

    “Hey, hey, get out. Get out, get out, get out!” he yelled to Fitzgerald.

    In his head, Hernandez said, he was talking himself through the steps he needed to take: Aim into the car, at the driver’s center mass, angle down to minimize ricochet. Be prepared to fire, but only if the driver pulls a gun, too.

    Please, he thought to himself, don’t have a gun. I don’t want to shoot someone.

    Fitzgerald slowly got out of the car, but refused to get down on the pavement. That was the only moment, Hernandez said, when he thought he might actually die: Fitzgerald had a jacket on, and he couldn’t tell what was underneath.

    But then Fitzgerald leaned back on the jersey barrier, arms spread wide, and Hernandez relaxed. Kamrowski was off the hood. Fitzgerald was out of the car. The police were arriving.

    Hernandez spoke only once to the man he had helped off the hood of the car.

    “You’re very lucky to be alive right now,” Hernandez told him.

    Mark Fitzgerald was in court during his appearance last week.
    Faith Ninivaggi/Pool
    Mark Fitzgerald was in court during his appearance last week.

    Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.