My husband and I were fourteen years into our marriage. Our lives were full with four children, their school events, sports and other activities. Collectively over the years we had played on more that 120 sports teams; baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, lacrosse and volleyball. Every year we took a family vacation to Estes Park Colorado, where my husband’s family had a home. We had made a goal of taking our children to as many states as we could before we would take them to Europe. My husband’s father was from Italy and we wanted to take the children there but were waiting until Allie (our youngest) was old enough to remember it well. We visited my grandparents in Maryland a few times and one of my all time favorite trips was during the summer of 1996 when I drove the children from Colorado to California making stops along the way. As a result our family loved road trips. I had become an expert at packing a car and having enough toys, games, and music to entertain the range of ages of our children. Johnny (our oldest) and Allie were 9 years apart. I had a CD player that held ten CD’s in my car because music was so central to our trips.
Not long after Allie was born, I became overwhelmed with the love I had for my four children and was fearful about losing one of them. We did not attend our church regularly but I liked our minister and I felt compelled to talk with him about my fears. A woman in the neighborhood had recently lost a daughter who was around the same age as our boys and I could not get her out of my mind. My heart broke for her, for her husband and for her other child who was the same age as our oldest Johnny. So I made an appointment. When I met with him I told him I was struggling with the fact that I couldn’t say, “Here God are my children, no matter what may happen, I have faith.” I explained that I was afraid something was wrong with me; that I didn’t have enough faith. I shared that I had observed many people who were afraid to talk about those fears as parents. I also told him I didn’t think I could bear something happening to a child of mine. I was looking for his guidance. At a loss he said something to the effect that “I was fragile like a flower.” I wasn’t fragile, I was a parent. A parent who loved her children with all of her heart. But one who knew the risks. I had known children who had died in my own childhood. I could list every one of them. I was aware children died, I never took that for granted. Unresolved but certain in my love for them I prayed for God to watch over them.
During the summer of 1998 the unthinkable happened and my family’s lives changed forever.
It was a typical summer night in Estes Park, Colorado as the sun set over the Rocky Mountain range. A cool pine scent infused the air surrounding my husband, Johnny, and me as we headed from the house to the little resort town. It was the end of July; he had arrived from Houston earlier that day to spend the middle week of a three-week vacation I was enjoying with our four children. This evening, we had left the children with our babysitter to celebrate our fourteenth anniversary at a favorite restaurant.
After dinner, Johnny and I took a ride into the park, as we sat in the car viewing the stunning purple mountains against the evening sky, my husband put a CD in the player and told me the song he played, "You’re Still the One," by Shania Twain was for our anniversary. The words could not have been more fitting.
My husband's week with us went by quickly. We all enjoyed his joining in the activities and hated having to say goodbye. I drove him to the airport in Denver on a Sunday evening and stopped by the Target in Boulder on the way home. My sister, Becky, her husband Mark, and their two children Madison age 5 and Boone age 3, would be joining us for the last few days of our vacation. The boys were organizing a little camp for their younger cousins so I was getting prizes and supplies for their camp on my way back up the mountain.
In the midst of all of this, our babysitter, who had come with us for the trip, decided she wanted to leave early. This meant I would have to drive back home myself with the children, and after discussing this with my husband we decided he would fly to Amarillo and meet us so I wouldn't be the sole driver on the twenty hour trip to Houston.
“Goodnight, Mommy, Daddy, Johnny, Chrissy, Joey, Allie,” Joey shouted, as he did every single night without fail when everyone was in bed for the night, like a scene from the Walton’s, even though he had never seen the television show. Although my husband had left, Joey still called out his name, as well as his own. For Joey, the family was always a complete unit, even if someone was away.
At 5:30 the next morning, I woke the children early for the long drive back to Houston. Leaving Estes Park would be bittersweet. For these past three weeks my children had roamed the cool, wooded mountains, as well as the easy, unpretentious streets of the town, which, lacking ski runs came alive mostly in summer. Deer, elk, and coyotes roamed the land, as well as chipmunks, prairie dogs and hummingbirds.
Despite the hour, we were all ready to go, because my oldest son, Johnny, had helped me finish packing the car. Johnny had just begun “the changes,” which had not gone unnoticed by his brothers. At the pool in town where the children swam, Christopher and Joey had teased Johnny about the long hair under his arms. He had no facial hair yet, and was still just five feet two inches tall, but still, he was long and lanky; his hands were more than an inch longer than mine, and his feet were growing fast, too. He would mature in fits and starts, I thought; he was destined to be a late bloomer, like my husband, who had grown four inches in college. But I could rely on him to play the role of the first-born who took a big brother's responsibilities seriously.
Now I was buckling the children into the Suburban for the trip. The sun was just rising and the air was cool and crisp – a typical summer morning in this sacred country. While our Texas home still baked in the August heat, Colorado had already made its first turn into autumn; on this day, August 8, 1998, we could feel the premonitory chill of fall.
Johnny would sit in the front seat for the first time ever on a long drive. He would take the place of our babysitter, handing the younger children drinks, changing the music, putting in a video to keep everyone happy. Christopher would sit behind Johnny and next to Allie in her car seat. Joey was in the third seat behind Chrissy. All of the children were on the passengers’ side -- I felt they were safest there. Typically, I stay in the right lane when we travel. The left side of my car would be more vulnerable on a two-lane highway.
My husband, kids and I sometimes laughed about my over-protectiveness, but I couldn't help myself. When Little Johnny was ten, asked me when I was going to let him cross the street by himself, “When you can drive across," I replied.
For the first few hours, the children slept. An hour outside of Denver a few of them started to stir, so I decided to stop for breakfast. At a Village Inn in Colorado Springs, I sat and watched all four children devour waffles with strawberries and whipped cream, one of their favorite road trip breakfasts.
As I sat among my kids, I experienced an eerie feeling, growing very aware of each of their faces, and anxious, without knowing why. Oblivious to my anxiety and concern, the children played a silly game that came with the kids’ meals. After they finished the game and their waffles and we got back in the car, I checked to make sure they were all secure, seatbelts fastened, and we continued on our journey home.
Since getting back onto Interstate 25, I had been following another Suburban south toward the New Mexico border. Now we were driving through the prairielands outside of Pueblo, Colorado, where the mountains receded from plain view. The roads were narrow with a soft shoulder and the speed limit increased to 75 miles per hour. I wasn’t crazy about this stretch of the highway.
It was Chrissy’s turn to choose the music; Johnny opted to listen to Bush on his Discman. The rest of us were listening to Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” when Allie and Chrissy broke into a little tiff behind me. They were playing around, and Allie started kicking Chrissy from her car seat. It was starting to annoy Chrissy, so I turned and tried to calm Allie down. With my right hand I tried to keep her from kicking him.
My car swerved -- to the right, first, and then I tried to make a corrective move, but my left tire went off the left side of the road into the middle grassy part of the freeway. I lost control on the soft shoulder. My left tire clipped the side and we were off the road; I could not get back on. We started to roll. We rolled four times – I didn’t know at the time but that is what we were told later. I held onto the steering wheel as my head slammed back and forth between the top of the ceiling, and my side window.
Finally, the car stopped. We were upright in the middle of the median. We hadn’t rolled into the oncoming traffic.
“Mommy, I’m OK,” Joey said.
I looked behind me. Allie was in her car seat. I looked next to her, then turned my head to the passenger’s side.
Johnny and Chrissy were not in the car.
I unbuckled my seatbelt, scrambled out, and took off, running, screaming, “Where are my babies?!” I whipped around frantically, searching the dirt and brush for them. Other motorists had stopped. They too were running around, searching. There was a strange burnt fluid smell from something that had leaked from my car. I ran through the wreckage, oblivious to broken glass, dirt, pebbles, and rocks. My boys. My boys! Where are they?
I found them lying in the dry, pebbly grass median of the freeway, several yards from each other behind the car, close to the point at which we had first come off the road. Johnny was closer to the side of the road we were driving on and Christopher was closer to the oncoming lanes.
They were alive.
I ran back and forth between the two. At first glance, Christopher looked worse; he had an open wound on his right wrist. More people had pulled over along the freeway to help. It was utter chaos. I could hear one person call 911 and say that Johnny’s eyes were fixed and dilated and Christopher was semi-conscious.
I knew enough about emergency medicine to realize I couldn’t do a thing for them. I had to wait for the paramedics to arrive, and let them do their job. But somehow, I knew I needed to get the children to Denver. We were outside of Pueblo, and that town wouldn’t be as well equipped as a larger city with a better trauma unit. I stood there and prayed to God, knowing it was in his hands. I did not touch the boys, because no one would let me get that close. Everyone was too afraid to move them.
I was trembling, full of adrenaline, in complete shock.
State troopers and other police officers arrived at the scene. I frantically fumbled through my car; my cell phone was nowhere to be found. Someone noticed my desperate gestures and gave me a phone. My husband was already en route to Amarillo by plane to meet us, so I called my father, who lived in Houston. I remember telling him that I had been in an accident and that it was bad. I remember saying that Johnny and Chrissy were hurt badly. I asked him to try to reach my husband and tell him to go to Denver. I also asked him to get in touch with my sister Becky, who was a few hours behind us on the same road. She and her husband Mark were on their way to Mark’s parents’ wedding anniversary in Colorado Springs.
Someone on the hill was holding Allie. I have no idea who took her out of the car. Joey was sitting on the ground, watching the whole surreal scene unfold in disbelief. He was clearly in emotional shock. While we waited for the paramedics, the state trooper asked me what happened. I told him that I drove off the road; then I recounted the experience as best as I could.
The state trooper told me that Johnny and Chrissy’s seat belts were still fastened. He seemed to be surprised and impressed by this. It didn’t faze me because they were always belted. What shocked me was that they were thrown from the car with their seatbelts on. In my wildest nightmares, I never imagined that seat belts would not keep the boys in their seats.
The paramedics finally arrived, and both boys were intubated (a tube was placed in their tracheas, for oxygen) and placed on stretchers. I ran to my car to look for the silly stuffed snowman Christopher slept with. I put it on the stretcher with him. Three ambulances took all of us to the hospital. I jumped into one of them alongside Johnny. Chrissy was in the second ambulance, and Joey and Allie were in the third.
We arrived at Parkview Episcopal Hospital, which had a typical small town emergency room. The boys were taken out and wheeled side by side into a triage unit. Joey and Allie were taken to a room together. I paced back and forth between the rooms, trying to find out anything I could and willing the doctors to speed things up. I sensed that timing was now critical. Allie and Joey were checked; both were going to be OK. At some point, one of the nurses said Johnny was more critically injured than Chrissy.
I had no idea.
We arranged for medevac, but Johnny wasn’t stable enough to fly. They needed to operate to remove his spleen and release the pressure on his brain. I was about to fly to Denver with Chrissy for him to get help with his brain injury when nurses started towards me. “Hang on Johnny,” I screamed. He couldn’t. There wasn’t enough of him left.
It was 1:45 p.m. Feeling completely out of my body, I began making phone calls, like a robot. I had new responsibilities here, and an alternate Mary Beth was taking them on. My husband was in route to Denver so I could not reach him. My sister was waiting in Denver for Chrissy and Johnny to arrive. She did not know Christopher was on his way without little Johnny, initially both boys were going to be transported together. Somehow someone at the hospital helped me call my sister at the hospital in Denver to tell her about little Johnny. Besides my, husband, sister, brother and parents, the first person I wanted to call was my old friend Sandy, our neighbor when we moved to Houston, in 1987. Sandy had a son, the same age as little Johnny. The boys had grown up together and other than my parents and siblings, Sandy knew Johnny best. Then I called another friend, and another, telling the story that was now my story, though I didn’t fully know it was real.
For Chrissy's sake, I needed to get to Denver. But there was no way I was going to leave Johnny behind. The doctors balked; certain procedures had to be followed, they said, including an autopsy. No, I replied, this would not do. Johnny had to go with us. Meanwhile, my sister’s father-in-law arranged for a private plane to take little Johnny and me to Denver. When the time came, the men in blue suits put my son in an ambulance, in a body bag. We were driven to the Pueblo airport to meet the plane.
It was early evening when we lifted off and headed north toward Denver. From my window, I could see the purple-gray mountains stand in relief against a bright orange sunset. Because the plane was small, I had a clear view of the pilot and instrument panel. Light rain was sprinkling on the front windshield. There was a gift basket filled with fruit on the floor. I found it odd, this gift basket. It was meant to comfort, and perhaps to nourish us, but it was inadequate to the task. My mind scurried through a jumble of thoughts, fears, and disbelief that this whole chain of events had just taken place. I was anxious and worried about Christopher. I thought about my husband and how hard his plane flight to Denver must have been. I thought about my sister picking him up from the airport and having to tell him that Johnny had died. The thought of him finding out was hideous. I worried for Joey and Allie and how traumatized they must be -- and how we would have to tell them that Johnny had died. I thought about my sister and her husband who were already in Denver with the other children, and the rest of my family making their way to Denver.
For the entire flight, I held onto Johnny’s leg on top of the body bag.
The next few years would be filled with doctors telling me that Chrissy wouldn’t survive or live a full life, and in fact psychologists were brought in to manage the crazy mom who wouldn’t believe what the doctors told her.
The lives of my family and friends will never be the same. And they shouldn’t be. We have each had to deal with long term injuries both physical and emotional that have changed the way we are wired. What we learned about opening to all experience has helped us live even bigger. Johnny and I are still married. Chrissy has his own cafe. Joey now works as a photographer and videographer and Allie now has a thriving career in marketing and PR. We will never, ever get over it, but it has taught us all how to help others when facing the unimaginable.