Mothers Day May 9th, 2004

A sunny Sunday morning greeted us as we awoke. Our schedule called for us to travel to Columbus, GA, (about 70 miles from Peachtree City, GA), for a late lunch with grandmother and great grandmother and other family at grandmother’s home.

After early church we were preparing to leave our home when Jillian and Lee insisted on driving their Jeep Cherokee. We wanted to travel together but the kids were persistent and with me giving in first Debbie (their Mother), finally agreed.

I must insert here that Debbie never liked the fact that I had brought Jillian the Jeep. The vehicle has a history of roll over issues at any speed and being an SUV should never be considered as a first car for a teen. I painfully know this now but at the time if seemed to be a good fit. Jillian and Lee wanted it and I had owned one about 10 years before that proved to be reliable and a sturdy. My choice in cars will haunt me the rest of my life.

Jillian, and Lee for that matter, were good drivers. They grew up in rural North Carolina just south of Winston-Salem.  North Carolina provides driver training as part of the curriculum at the high schools. Jillian and Lee both had this training but before that they drove with me in the car on the rural roads around our farm since they were ten. In fact, from the time they were 14 or so, each Sunday one would drive to church and one would drive back home. It was only about two miles each way and very little traffic. I tried to teach them everything I knew about safety and what to do when roads were icy, wet, dry, cold, hot, paved, dirt, etc. I considered both to be good drivers and felt safe when ever I rode with either of them. Nether one had any accidents or moving violations during their short driving history.

Now back to Mothers Day. By now Debbie has reluctantly given in on the idea of the kids taking the Jeep to Columbus, and we depart with Debbie and me in the BMW and Jillian and Lee in the Jeep. The trip down to Columbus is uneventful and we all arrive about 12:30 PM for lunch.

Lunch at Pat, (grandmother),and Frank’s is always a treat in it’s self. Not only will the food be excellent but all the extended family are usually there as well. Today was no exception. Great Grandmother, (Nettie Lou) , all of 98 years and at the time going strong was there along with cousins’ aunts’ uncles etc. Lots of fun, lots of fellowship, lots of love and lots of pictures. Looking back now I can not think of a better send off for Jillian and Lee. They knew to the end that they were loved and they returned that love ten fold. They never left to go anywhere that that they did not hug me , kiss me on the cheek and say “I love you”. Today they did this same routine.

Around 3:15 PM Jillian and Lee announced that they wanted to return to Peachtree City early. As kids are prone to do they had better things to do on a Sunday afternoon than to sit and talk. So with the afore mentioned hugs, kisses, and I love you’s, all around they left for the drive back to Peachtree City.  They took the route back up Interstate 185. Debbie and I packed up and said our good bys about 30 minutes later, but instead of the interstate we decided to take the rural route up GA 85 back to Peachtree City. This was GOD’s way of keeping Debbie and I from coming up on the accident.

The accident it’s self occurred on Interstate 185 at Lagrange, GA just before 4:00 PM. Jillian is at the wheel with Lee in the front passenger seat. No one saw the exact cause of the accident but here is what witnesses said. The Jeep Jillian is driving is in the right hand lane behind a line of cars in that same lane. At the point where an on ramp comes down onto the interstate and joins that northbound lane, Jillian’s Jeep makes a radical jerk to the left, as if to miss a car coming onto the interstate from the ramp that may not have seen her. In any event she crosses into the left lane and the left wheels drop off the pavement to the inside of the highway. When she came back into the left lane the jeep is sideways and begins to barrel roll. Jillian and Lee are both wearing their seatbelts but in this case other things on the Jeep failed rendering the seatbelts useless. On the first revolution the driver side door pops open. According to experts in the field of accident reconstruction, door latch, seatbelt, seat back, roof crush, etc. here is what happened. The door latch and automatic door locking system both fail. With the driver’ side door open Jillian is exposed to the pavement on each revolution. On the second revolution the pavement cuts through her seat belt and she is ejected and killed instantly there in the median. Lee has his seat slightly reclined and may have been sleeping. The design of the seatbelt as it related to the seat is such that if you recline only a little you comprise the effectiveness of the system. This little known fact killed our son as he slipped out from under his belt and came out the rear hatch as the Jeep continue to roll down the embankment into the median. Lee had some minor signs of life but died on the way to the hospital.

An older couple came up on the accident after the police and emergency people were already at the seen and told the police that that black jeep was speeding when it passed the couple way back down the interstate. That statement went into the police report as fact and cause of the accident. However witnesses at the seen that actually saw the accident unfold told a different story. Jillian was traveling with the flow of traffic. No faster or slower than others. In fact one witness that was traveling in the passing lane some 100 yards behind Jillian stated that he was traveling at about 70 to 75 miles an hour and was catching the line of cars Jillian was following. In our opinion Jillian simply saw a situation that she needed to avoid. Maybe a car coming onto the interstate from the on ramp, maybe the car in front slowed suddenly, maybe something else, but she succeeded in avoiding the other car or obstacle. What killed my children that Mothers Day afternoon was the failure of Jeep, (Daimler Chrysler), to produce a vehicle that can handle an avoidance move on an interstate. Put those same children in the same situation but substitute the Jeep with a BMW, Volvo, Honda, Toyota, Buick, Chevy, Ford, and tell me the results would be the same. SUV’s in general and Jeeps in particular are not and should never be the choice for teen drivers. Please remember this and avoid the heart broken pain we have suffered for my decision to buy that Jeep.

By now Debbie and I are home in Peachtree City. We have called Jillian’s phone several times but can not get an answer. It’s about 5:00 PM. We begin calling friends of Jillian and Lee trying to find out where they are. No one knows. At some point I go out to retrieve something for the car and see a neighbor talking to some kids across the street. I go over to greet them and ask if they have seen Jillian or Lee. They say no but they heard of an accident involving students from Starr’s Mill High School. I go back in the house and get on the phone again. The first call is the Steve Schofield, our pastor and friend from Brooks United Methodist Church. He comes over at once to help any way he can. I also begin calling Law enforcement in the counties along the route I think Jillian would have taken. I started with Fayette County, Coweta County, Meriweather County, and Troup County. No one had any information until I got to Troup County. The Highway Patrol office in Troup County said they had information and that they were in route to our home with the Coroner. That is never something a parent wants to hear. As we waited for what we knew was extremely bad news our friend and neighbors begin to gather in our home. We called Pat,(grandmother), and Frank and told we did not know what was going on but to please come up as soon as they could. I remember Frank said to me that I was upsetting Pat in my tone over the phone. I was sorry but right then I did not know what else to say. They of course rushed up from Columbus.

What would the coroner tell us? Had we lost one of our children? Had we lost both? If we had to choose one, which one could we do without? Of course the answer was neither one but these are the things that go through your mind when you have been notified that the corner is in route. As we waited for the inevitable we all gathered around and prayed. Pastor Steve prayed for a miracle but in absents of that we need grace and understanding of what lie in store. What seemed like forever was probably 30 minutes or so until the Highway Patrol, Fayette County Sheriff’s Department, and the Troop County Coroner arrived. As Debbie and I held each other, surrounded by our friends and the Grace of GOD, we heard the verdict. It was the worse news possible. Just before 4:00 PM on Mothers Day on an interstate in Georgia we had lost both or our precious children. Our 18 year old Daughter and our 16 year old son, gone, finished, over, period. No graduation from high school, no college, no careers, no marriage, no family, no grand children. All the things that we planned for our family and children lay in shattered pieces on the floor around us that evening. Nothing in our lives would ever be the same.

From here things get fuzzy in my mind. I guess the brain can only hear so much bad news before it begin to attempt to filter things out. I remember Pat and Frank arriving and going through the same news and grief we were already in. I remember calling my sisters in North Carolina and then calling my mother. I remember all Penny, (my older sister), could say while I told her the news was “I love you, I love you, I love you”. Somehow those words were a comfort to me and something I needed to hear just then. At some point in time the Georgia Life people called. These are the kind folks with the job of calling grieving parents and asking for permission to take usable organs from Jillian and Lee’s body for use in transplant. Jillian and Lee both were signed up as organ donors as are Debbie and I. This choice was simple but added finality to the situation and begin another round of grieving.

About dusk Debbie and I are both escorted through our front door and into the front yard. We are greeted by what must have been a hundred students from Starr’s Mill High School. Each held a candle and they all begin to sing Amazing Grace. What a moment of peace fell over Debbie and I. At that moment we somehow knew that GOD stilled loved us and cared for us and sent Jillian and Lee’s friends to comfort us. There would be many days beyond that day where we would question even if there was a GOD. But for those few minutes there was a small amount of peace. A day that begin with much promise and joy in the celebration of our mothers ends with an unspeakable loss and more suffering than I thought I could stand.