Archive for Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Survivors recovering from U.S. 73 head-on

October 25, 2006

Valerie Nearing wishes she could forget. Tony Hullaby wishes he could remember.

Three months after surviving a head-on accident on U.S. Highway 73 south of Lansing, the two continue to recover from injuries they suffered in the wreck, which claimed the lives of two others.

Nearing, 28, of Lansing, was driving her Ford Explorer the night of July 9. With her in the front seat was Hullaby. Behind him was John Bridgewater, a friend of theirs from Leavenworth. They were headed into Kansas City to visit Hullaby's father.

They had just dropped off a bag of cat food at the home of the father of Nearing's three children and were headed south out of town toward the metro area.

Just inside Wyandotte County, it happened.

From over the crest of a hill, headlights were coming directly at the Explorer on the four-lane divided highway. From the backseat, Nearing said, Bridgewater uttered a warning punctuated by an expletive, "What the : ?"

Within moments, a Chevy S-10 driven by James A. Norwood of Leavenworth had smashed into the Explorer.

"We were in the fast lane, and he was coming down our lane at the same time," Nearing recalled last week in her first interview since the wreck. "When I saw him coming, I tried to apply the brakes to turn. But the same way I tried to turn, he turned."

Nearing was pinned in her seat. Somehow Hullaby got out of the Explorer, though he said he didn't know how. Bridgewater, who had been thrown into the front seat by the force of the impact, was lying next to Nearing near death.

Over in the S-10, Nearing said, Norwood was slumped over his steering wheel, already dead.

Emergency workers arrived and pried the car door to free Nearing. She was flown to University of Kansas Hospital, where she spent two weeks with a compound fracture in her right ankle, a broken right arm and a broken left leg.

Hullaby, meanwhile, was flown to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo., with a shattered right arm, a crushed foot, a broken leg and internal injuries. He spent the first three or four days of his hospitalization blacked out. When he finally awakened, he said, he remembered nothing about the wreck.

"I remember going down to Kansas City and then I remember waking up like three or four days later. That's about it," he said.

The report

Late last month, the Kansas Highway Patrol released a supplement to the accident report filed in July.

Trooper J.T. Johnson said an autopsy showed Norwood had died of multiple blunt force trauma injuries sustained in the collision. The autopsy, performed by Dr. Michael Handler at University of Kansas Medical Center, also included toxicology results showing Norwood had a blood-alcohol concentration of .047. In addition, Fentanyl, a prescription painkiller, was detected in Norwood's blood and urine.

"On 09/13/06, I made contact with Dr. Handler via telephone to inquire at what point Norwood would have been impaired from the Fentanyl. Dr. Handler advised that Norwood had so much of the drug in his system that he was considered to be at a toxic level," wrote Johnson, who concluded, "Norwood's impairment is a significant contributing factor in this collision."

A blood sample taken after the accident and tested by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation showed Nearing had no alcohol in her blood at the time of the wreck.

Healing slowly

Since her release from the hospital, Nearing has begun her recovery. Physically, she's able to get around on her own. She's returned to work, but she finds it difficult at times.

"I have a sit-down job and my legs get really, really stiff. When I get up to walk, I've almost fallen a couple times," she said.

There are other maladies afflicting her, too.

"I still have to go in and have some things removed out of me: a stint that catches blood clots. My knee's not working right, getting the range of motion that it's supposed to," she said, noting it would need further examination.

Then, there are the emotional scars.

"I probably cried for almost a month straight after the wreck happened, and I still every day wake up feeling sad all the time," Nearing said.

She said when Trooper Johnson presented her with Norwood's toxicology results, "I was pretty furious. : I'm very angry at that guy (Norwood)."

But most bothersome is Nearing's memory of Bridgewater dying by her side.

"At first he was, like, snoring, so I thought he was going to be OK," Nearing said. "And when (Tony) talked, I remember it was just a relief. And then I remember the cop saying, 'We have a code. Get him out of there quick.' But it was too late."

Nearing said she continued to vividly recall the accident scene, especially the odor.

"It's one of the worst things you could ever experience. There's not even a way to describe it. The smells that you smell after the vehicles hit. It's bad. It smells like a caramel-like smell, but a burnt caramel," she said.

Buried memories

For Hullaby, there are no memories of the wreck.

"I remember dropping off the cat food. That's about it," Hullaby said. "I don't necessarily know if it's better that way, because I really don't sleep any more."

He has a layman's theory of why he can't remember: The brain is repressing the memories because they are so awful, but blocking those memories is keeping the mind working overtime and preventing any rest or relaxation.

"Your brain just thinks all the time," Hullaby theorizes. "You don't know what it's thinking about, but you know it's working because you don't concentrate too well on things that you're doing.

"It'd be better to remember, even though I'd be traumatized from the visuals, but at least I might be able to get some rest," he said.

Hullaby faces a long road toward physical rehabilitation. A cast on his foot was finally to be removed, only to be replaced by a boot and orders for extended physical therapy that include learning how to walk again.

"I might be walking by myself by Christmas," he noted.

Road to recovery

Despite the physical and emotional scars, both Nearing and Hullaby say they have a new outlook on life in the wreck's aftermath.

They both consider themselves lucky to be alive.

"We were told that by the trooper that came. He's been on the force for five years and that's the worse car accident he's seen, and he could not believe that we survived," Nearing said.

The wreck, she said, "made us much better people, I think. We kind of took life for granted before the wreck."

Added Hullaby, "Not that we were bad beforehand, but values and things change. When that life opportunity almost ceases to exist, it's just like, whoa."

Neither is wild about getting into a car these days.

"I don't trust anyone who's driving. I don't have any faith in anyone's driving skills that's outside of the vehicle I'm in. It's terrible but it's extremely true," Hullaby said, noting, he'd rather walk than get in a car.

"I'm not as scared now as what I was, because I've got to drive in order to get around and take care of my kids," Nearing said. "But I watch every driver, very closely."

They credit their surviving the crash to two factors: First, design of the Explorer.

"In the newer Fords, the engine is designed to drop instead of coming through, and it did what it was supposed to," Nearing said.

Second and most importantly, they said, they were the only two people involved in the wreck wearing their seat belts. Buckling up is a practice they say they always follow.

"You think it's a cliche, but it's true," Hullaby said. "Seat belts are mandatory."

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