When the world stopped moving in the wrong direction, Tricia began to notice the heat near her left leg. She could not feel her right leg. It seemed to be shorter than the other one, as if somebody had taken her thigh and folded it away like a hide-a-bed; and done a bad job of it.
She held up her right arm and it hung in the air, unable to do much more than show her how compact it now was. And her left arm wasn't any better. The wrist was the size of a grapefruit. Furthermore the pain that was rampaging its way through her body, exiting out her throat in the form of any desperate sound she could make.
She noticed other things, too: the blood, the glass, the fire, how she was stuck and how a woman was screaming, "Oh my god! There's a girl in there!", how a man began cutting her shoe off and how somebody else wanted her phone number.
Five hours earlier. It was Valentine's Day, February 14, 2004. It should become the worst day of Tricia's life. At 7 a.m., on that Saturday, she was in the car and headed to the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) in Berlin Heights (North of Ohio, USA). Tricia, a 17-year-old senior at Lorain County Joint Vocational School, decided to use the early hours of Feb. 14 to volunteer at CVI, prepping foods and equipment, experience that could only help as she pursued a future in culinary arts.
After four hours of preparing sauces, soups, desserts and vegetables, Tricia got into her parents' forest green Ford Contour and headed toward her Elyria home. While she had been to CVI many times before, this was the first time she had driven herself.
The turn in the road was not much more than a slight curve. The road was dry and clear. For most people, it is the kind of change in direction you do not even realize you've made until it is over. But that was not the case for Jose Garcia-Cano. Alcohol made sure of that.
Nobody knows why Garcia-Cano was on Route 113 the morning of February 14. And nobody knows why he had been drinking at such an early hour. All anybody knows for sure is that the Chevy Suburban Garcia-Cano was driving took the turn too wide. And before the 26-year-old migrant worker knew it, he was headed straight for a forest green Ford Contour.
Ask somebody what they would do if a truck was headed straight for the car they were driving and the answers would probably come quick. Swerve to the left. Swerve to the right. Do anything, just get the heck out of the way. But it is a different story when a truck is headed straight for your car. So as Tricia realized that the truck up ahead was now in her lane, she did what most people would do. She hit the brakes. Then she hit the Suburban.
The right front of the Contour took the brunt of the impact, causing Tricia to go from travelling about 30 miles per hour eastbound to travelling backward and across the road, coming to a stop in a ditch 128 feet later. When the Suburban came to rest it was still headed west in the eastbound lane.
The four-door Contour now looked like a two-door. The dashboard on the passenger side was where the back seat used to be. Glass was everywhere. Blood was everywhere. Something was burning. And it did not take long for Tricia to realize that, although the air bag went off and she was wearing her seat belt, she could not move her right leg and both her arms were broken and useless. She tried ramming her shoulder into the door, but it was no use. The door was wedged against the bottom of the ditch. After that, she mostly screamed.
Jeff Newman was going to be late for his son's basketball game, when he hit the scene. He saw that there was something up ahead on his side of the road. As he got closer, he realized it was a truck, and it was facing the wrong direction. It had obviously been hit by something, but there was nobody around.
Something in his head said he needed to help, so Newman pulled to the side of the road and ran to the Suburban. He could see smoke coming from the engine. He got closer and saw there was fire, too.
Newman turned to see a semi truck coming. He got the driver to stop. "Do you have a fire extinguisher?" he yelled. "That truck's on fire." The truck driver grabbed his fire extinguisher and the two rushed back to the Suburban. But the extinguisher failed to put out the flames.
Newman looked into the vehicle and saw Garcia-Cano trapped inside. He was covered with blood. His nose was missing and he didn't seem to be conscious. "There's nothing we can do for this guy," Newman said. It was then that a women's scream caught their attention. Newman went back to the other side of the Suburban and saw the Contour in the opposite ditch. He ran to the vehicle, where he saw the woman who had screamed. "There's a girl inside!"
Another car with three young men stopped. Before they even got to the car in the ditch, the woman ran to them. "You've got to help us get this girl out of her car!" They needed to lift the car to open the driver's door.
One boy could feel himself just stand there for a second, unable to move. He was scared. He probably was not the only one. The whole thing was unbelievable. It did not seem real. But then, adrenaline kicked in and the boys lifted the back of the car enough so Newman could open the door.
"Get me out!", Tricia screamed. "Get me out!" One young man was able to see her and tried to calm her down. "Everything is going to be all right," he said. "The nightmare will be over soon." Jeff Newman grabbed his pocket knife and cut the seat belt. With that, Tricia slid down under the steering wheel. That was when they noticed her right foot was caught under the gas pedal. The woman was trying to get Tricia's foot free.
Someone had called 911 and in this moment two firemen arrived in a private car. They live near that place, over their scanner came the message that a two-car accident has happened on route 113. Newman handed the knife to one fireman while the other used a fire extinguisher to try and control the flames under the hood. The first fireman began working on Tricia's shoe and ... BOOM! The noise came from the Contour's engine area and it made just about everybody jump. Tricia screamed. Newman's first instinct was to run. But he did not. Nobody did. "The fire is just about out," the second fireman yelled. A second later, the first fireman had Tricia's shoe off and they were ready to pull her from the car. "Just bear with us," Newman told her. He noticed that she was in strong pain. "Just take a deep breath and this will all be over in a second."
When Tricia was safely out and away from the car, Cindy Eppler, went to her side, trying to comfort her. "I want my mom," Tricia moaned. "I want my mom!" "I can call her if you want," the woman said. "Call my mom!" She asked Tricia for her name and phone number, and then grabbed her cell phone. Gerry, Tricia's stepfather, was on the other end of the phone. "Your daughter's been in an accident," said the woman, almost yelling into the phone. Gerry wanted to know where it happened and if she was OK. Cindy said Tricia was shook up but OK. "Can I talk to her?" The woman asked Tricia if she wanted to talk. She did not. Cindy handed the phone to a state trooper who had just arrived. "Where are they taking her," asked Gerry. It did not make sense for him to drive 30 miles to Berlin Heights and have them be gone when he got there. The trooper did not know what hospital they were taking Tricia to. "I'll have to call you back," he said. So Gerry just sat and waited.
It was after 1:30 pm when Tricia's mother, Pat, finally got home from getting a hair-cut and shopping. As soon as she pulled into her garage, Gerry opened the door to the house. Before he even said a word, Pat could tell something was wrong. "Tricia's been in an accident," he told her, then watched as Pat almost went into tears right then and there.
By then, Gerry knew Tricia was being flown to Akron General Hospital. He told his wife what little he knew. That Tricia had multiple broken bones, but nothing that seemed life threatening. That did little to keep the hour-long drive from Elyria to Akron from being the worst trip either had ever experienced. For Pat, the drive seemed to take days. It did not matter how fast they were going, they were not going fast enough.
When Gerry and Pat finally got to their daughter, this is what they saw: Tricia's hair was matted and filled with bits of glass. There was blood on her face. Her neck was in a brace. There was an IV and other tubes going into her. And there was a lot of ice around her. Doctors had already pulled her right arm and leg out some, making them closer to the length they were before the accident.
While Gerry dealt with insurance forms and other information, Pat went to Tricia's side. Her daughter was very alert, at one point correcting her father when he gave the wrong telephone number, but she was in a lot of pain. The combination of Pat and the medication eventually calmed her down. That evening, doctors needed five hours to perform surgery on her right arm and leg. On Monday, Tricia was in surgery for another three hours as doctors worked to repair her left arm and right ankle.
In all, Tricia spent six days in the hospital, with Pat by her bedside for most of it. She went home in a wheelchair and lived the next few weeks of her life on a hospital bed set up in her living room. While she was still in a lot of pain, two days after she got home, the pain subsided.
On Tuesday, April 20, it was her second day back since the end of Easter break, Tricia got out of school early, wheeled into her doctor's office, pointed at her wheelchair and asked, "Can I throw this thing away yet?" "You sure can." The doctor said she now had no limits, no restrictions. Nine weeks and three days after leaving the hospital, Tricia traded her wheelchair for a cane.
But that was just the beginning of her great day. After the doctor's office, Tricia was off to Sandusky High School, where six of her rescuers were being honoured at the annual Sandusky Area Safety Council awards banquet. "I don't know what I would have done," Tricia told the media that day. "I love these guys. They're my favorite valentines."
Three months later, Tricia walked with a limp. Her right leg is about 3/4 of an inch shorter than the left. She was still finding bits of glass in her skin. And surgery scars on her arms were a daily reminder of what happened on Valentine's Day 2004.
But all that did not stop her from showing visitors her x-rays before and after surgery. Or having them run a finger along her forearm to feel the pins holding everything in place. Or bringing out the scrapbook her family made, chronicling her recovery.
The book is filled with photos of Tricia in the hospital. One shows her stepbrother picking the glass out of her hair. Another show her trying to sip a drink through a straw while still in her neck brace. There is even a picture of her trying to write her first words since the accident. A short scribbled note to Pat. "Hey mom, not much better at writing yet. I love you." Looking at the book now, Tricia admitted she did not like people taking her picture while she was in the hospital. "But I'm glad they did," she said, "because I don't really remember it."
For the most part, life has returned to normal for Tricia and her family. But more than anything, their family has learned that, even in the worst of times, great things can happen. "So many people helped Tricia," said her mother. "It's nice to know somebody was there when we couldn't be. Tricia is very fortunate, and we are very thankful."