By Jackie Saulmon Ramirez | January 9, 2013
In June of 1997 I got a frantic call here in New Jersey from my friend Pat in North Carolina. Her daughter and grandson had just been killed in a horrific head-on collision when a teenager lost control of his vehicle and crossed the median on I-40. We had no words for each other except, “Oh my God… I can’t believe it,” as we cried and cried. I believe there is no pain worse than that of losing a child; you know everyone is put here for a reason and ask, “God, why?”
Pat’s daughter Donna was just twenty-five and her son Tyler about to turn five and was excited about starting school in the fall. Donna had two younger daughters and a husband who were grieving as well. Pat was consumed by grief and there was nothing I could do or say to lessen that pain.
Pat told me there had been other accidents on that strip of I-40; there was a problem but nothing that you could see. I asked her, why doesn’t the state fix it? Pat suddenly found a focus for her grief saying. “No more deaths on I-40!” She had a relative write up a petition for area residents to sign that asked the North Carolina Department of Transportation to install a steel guardrail on that troublesome section of interstate highway. The NCDOT told her, “Six months is the usual wait for an unscheduled job like that.”
Pat got busy; she made hundreds of copies of the petition and distributed them to police departments, sheriff departments, hospitals, convenience stores, grocery stores and restaurants. She asked others to pass them around because this tragedy not only affected her, but the entire region. Once the petition sheets were filled with signatures Pat drove and collected them all and sent them on to Raleigh.
Three weeks after Donna and Tyler’s deaths on I-40, another woman in her thirties lost control of her car and crossed the median, running into oncoming traffic— in that same stretch of road. This woman lived but lost her voice box and one of her eyes. Pat called the North Carolina Department of Transportation and told them who she was and about the latest accident saying, “We can’t wait six months, we need that guardrail now!”
There were well over 10,200 signatures from people who lived in the immediate area that went to the State asking for that guardrail. In a record five weeks, work began on the guardrail and in six weeks it was completed. The resulting guardrail ran from mile marker 88 to mile marker 119; the length of I-40 in Burke County, where the worst accidents kept recurring.
Pat called me about three weeks after the guardrails were up; she and her husband had come upon another crash involving a young family at that very same spot, only this time the vehicle couldn’t cross the median— the guardrails had prevented it. The people would be bruised but they would recover even though their van was torn up. Pat and I cried again and rejoiced— lives were saved by the new guardrail.
Pat worked with her husband as a long-haul trucking team bouncing from Carolina to California. We kept in touch every few days and while her grief was getting better, I knew she would never get over losing Donna and Tyler. I wrote a poem “Donna and Tyler” and a fictional short story as a gift from me to her called, “The Widow’s Final Trip.” Pat loved the story about an old woman in a rest home who never got over her grief either.
A couple of months later my daughter called from North Carolina, she was breathless and obviously very upset. When she finally calmed down enough to speak she explained what happened. She was driving her daughter to a birthday party on I-40 and a pickup truck going in the opposite direction suddenly swerved and then lost control and bounded through the median, straight toward her and Candis. Carmen said there was no way to prevent it from hitting them— Thank God for the new guardrail!
This time it was my turn to tell Pat to sit down… She listened quietly on the other end as I told her Carmen’s version of the story, how there was no way she could have avoided the truck and how the truck peeled metal down the guardrail and came to a halt. I thought Pat and I were close but now we are spiritually closer than sisters could ever be. My daughter and granddaughter were literally saved by the sacrifice of her daughter and then her fight to get those guardrails up with her mantra, “No more deaths on I-40!”
This true story illustrates how just one person can have an impact and touch other people’s lives. Pat is as ordinary as you or me, but her extraordinary efforts to change the history of that stretch of highway made a difference. YOU— can make a difference too!
The URLs below will take you to Donna and Tyler’s grave and photo on FindAGrave.com. You can leave a “flower or a note” if you wish and read a little about both.
Today Pat continues to drive with her husband as a long-haul trucking team. Pat maintains a roadside cross in memory of Donna and Tyler. New accidents still happen on that strip of I-40 but no more deaths have occurred yet.
My daughter Carmen is living a productive life as an insurance agent. Her daughter Candis serves in the U.S. Air Force as a hospital manager. Both are grateful for Pat’s efforts.
Copyright © 2014 Jackie Saulmon Ramirez. All Rights Reserved.
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