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  • Brian M Winningham

September 15, 1983

On September 15, 1983 at about 3:25PM, my mom - 34, my middle sister - 14, my youngest sister – 12, and me - 18 were involved in a head-on collision with a bread delivery truck, commonly known as a step-van. We were in a Ford Escort Station Wagon that my parents had bought brand new earlier that summer. My sisters, mom and I had driven from Holiday Island, Arkansas, where we lived, to Fayetteville, Arkansas to pick up some concert tickets for me and to go to the mall for my sisters and mom. It’s hard to remember much of the trip because of what happened after, but my sisters tell me they had fun. I’m sure we had lunch out but couldn’t say where. I think it was about an hour and a half drive both ways, just under 60 miles but very mountainous and curvy. Most of the roads were two-lane, one each way, and passing was always limited due to hills and diminished sight lines. It could be very stressful driving even in normal conditions.

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My family and I had moved to the area in the early months of 1983, and we ended up living there for just over a year. Holiday Island was only 15 minutes from, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Eureka Springs in 1983 was a wonderful place to live from my perspective. It was a tourist town in the summer and a very small regular town in the winter. I think the population back then was around 2000 year-round residents, and the town got something like 3-3.5 million visitors over the summer months. When we first moved there, I was homeschooling at night and pipelining with my dad during the day until I finished up that spring with school. I met some of the local kids my age and struck up friendships. I also started partying a lot with those new friends after I finished school, so much so that I lost my job in July. Needless to say, my parents weren’t thrilled with me at the time.

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Mom suddenly decided it was time to go home at about 2:45 that day which was sort of odd. I didn’t want to drive home but “since the trip was to get my concert tickets” mom made me. I complained and mom and I argued, but I started our trip home from Fayetteville as the driver. It started raining, sprinkling for a little while, maybe the first 20 minutes. Then it began to pour down. It looked like someone was dumping buckets of water on the windshield continuously and at times I couldn’t even see the front of the hood of the car. I pulled over and stopped as soon as I could find a spot. I had felt the car sliding a couple of times while I was driving. When it happened, it felt like I was driving on a surface of ball bearings. It was really scarry and it felt like my stomach was doing flip-flops. I later learned that what happened to the car is called hydroplaning. A layer of water builds up between the surface of the tire and the road causing the vehicle to lose contact with the road and to slide uncontrollably. I told mom about it but couldn’t tell her what actions were causing it because it seemed pretty random. I said I wasn’t willing to drive anymore because it didn’t feel safe to me. She accused me of not wanting to drive home because I was lazy and was very angry with me. She pretty viciously questioned my manhood. This was the beginning of my guilt over the accident, but I didn’t give in and drive.

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I was drifting a little at this point in my life. I was 18 and I had lost my job because I was partying too hard. After I lost my job, I didn’t stop partying, I actually started partying harder. I went through a bunch of money in those three months and wasn’t making good life choices. I had let my sister’s 16-year-old boyfriend drive my truck. I was with him when he rolled it four times on the side of a mountain about a month before our accident. We ended up having to walk about 4 or 5 miles home, but he wasn't hurt and all I got was a cut on my ear. So, I was with my mom and sisters getting the concert tickets, because I no longer had a vehicle. Like I said above, my parents weren’t exactly thrilled with me and my choices at the time, but the way mom talked to me that day was over the top and way out of line.

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Mom said she was intent on getting home to make dad dinner, so she said she would drive since I was too scared. It had stopped raining enough that we were able to get out of the car and trade seating positions; Mom was now the driver, I sat behind mom, my youngest sister sat in the front passenger seat and my other sister sat behind her, next to me. The car was dead silent because of our argument with none of us talking. After mom drove for a little bit, I felt the car slide again. I urged mom to stop and pull over but because it wasn’t raining any longer, she insisted on keeping going. It happened once or twice more before we wrecked. Mom kept refusing to pull over. Her stated logic was that we didn’t have time to let everything dry up before we needed to be home to get dad his dinner. She was right about that; we would have been late getting dad his dinner that day if we had stopped. Instead, she wasn’t able to make dad’s dinners for a long time after that day.

Every time the car slid while mom was driving, it caught right away and didn’t slide very far, until it finally didn’t catch. We were going around a curve, but the car kept going straight. I saw a dirt road in front of us leaving the highway and it looked like mom was trying to steer us toward there. I thought we might make it and the vehicle traveling toward us in the opposite lane might miss us. From here everything is a kaleidoscope of slow-motion images and sounds and feelings. Just as it looked like we might escape, the front wheel drive car caught traction and whipped us ninety-degrees straight head-on into the oncoming lane. Mom said, “Here we go!” That’s when the sound started. It was so loud you could feel it inside you, like it was part of you. It was like being inside a freight train whistle and at the epicenter of an explosion all at once in slow motion. Metal screamed as it was torn apart. Our car battery exploded with a loud boom outside the car right next to my mom. There was a huge groan as we were wrenched away in the opposite direction just as the step-van’s wheel wedged into our windshield right in front of my mom. I remember the sun breaking through the clouds just then and shining on the shards of glass that seemed at that moment to be suspended in air. I’m not sure how mom and I weren’t killed outright. I don’t know what it was, but something caused our car to spin out from under the van which stopped within fifteen feet from the point of impact still traveling in the same direction. I think the driver got a sprained ankle, but I am pretty foggy about what happened to him. We ended up about one-hundred-fifty feet from the point of impact down the road in our initial direction of travel, facing the wrong way back on our side of the road. I believe mom was cited by the State Police for “crossing the center line”.

None of us were wearing seatbelts and air bags weren’t a thing yet. My middle sister looked the least injured out of all of us, but she impacted the front seat with her face and ribs. She was in shock right away and had a real hard time figuring out what was going on. My youngest sister hit the dash with her face and then the windshield, but she somehow wasn’t ejected. Both of my legs got shoved up under the front seat and my head impacted the door post between the front seat and the back. Mom was hurt worse than any of the rest of us, but I couldn’t see her from where I was. I could only hear her moaning that her leg hurt.

There was a lot of blood and smoke and a really acrid smell, probably from the battery that blew up next to mom. My bell was rung pretty good, but I started trying to check on my middle sister who was sitting next to me holding her ribs and rocking back and forth. When I got her to respond, she kept asking over and over “What happened? Is mom okay?” I told her everything was going to be okay and to just stay where she was for now. I tried to check on my youngest sister and when she looked at me, her face was so cut up it looked like fresh ground hamburger meat. My heart was in my throat when I told her it was going to be okay. She said she couldn’t see, and I was so scared she was blind, I almost started weeping. I could see the bloody imprint of her face in the shattered windshield. I couldn’t see mom from where I was, so I got out of the car, at least I tried to. I had to force the door open to get out and when I tried to walk, my right leg gave way and I fell down on the ground next to mom’s door. I could hear her moaning and crying, “It hurts. My leg hurts. It’s broken and it hurts. It hurts real bad.”

I was trying to grab mom’s door when someone helped me up and put me back in the car in my seat and told me to stay there. I’m not sure who it was. I remember asking them if there was a fire because everything looked so red to me. I figured out later it was because of the blood running down into my eyes from the cut on my forehead. I’m not certain but the person I talked to could have been my dad’s boss (also my old boss), who just happened to be driving by right after our accident. It was very weird seeing him there but I’m glad he was. He had a two-way radio in his truck, and I think that is how the rescue folks showed up so fast. He also had the company notify dad which could have taken a lot longer.

I know I talked to the paramedics, but I don’t remember what I said. My sisters have told me they heard me telling the paramedics about all our injuries and the assessments I had made. I guess some muscle memory from my lifeguard first-aid training kicked in. They got all of us into the ambulance except my mom. They had to use the Jaws-of-Life to extract her from the vehicle. I can remember the sound it made. The hydraulics sounded like a car lift and the car sounded like it was screaming again. We could hear mom screaming over the sound of the car and the Jaws-of-Life. The rescue folks took us to the hospital before they got mom all the way out and I was pretty upset. I didn’t want to leave her, and I was pretty sure we wouldn’t see her alive again. I later heard the paramedics talking, saying that it was the worst wreck they had ever seen where everyone lived.

They brought the three of us to this little county hospital, which was maybe 5 patient rooms. They had us in Emergency working on us when they brought mom in where we were. She was incoherent and moaning and crying a lot. I remember my sisters crying and me telling them it would be okay. They finally separated me from the rest and when they finished working on me, mom and my youngest sister were already gone. They moved my youngest sister with mom to a bigger hospital in Fayetteville because they were worried about broken facial bones and potential damage to her eyes, although it turned out nothing was broken, and her vision is (mostly) okay. My middle sister and I had to spend the night at that small country hospital by ourselves because of our concussions but at least we got to spend the night in the same room. I remember she was moaning and crying most of the night and my head hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep.

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Here is the butcher’s bill: Mom’s pelvis, specifically her acetabulum and hip-socket, were shattered by her femur when it became displaced and she had seven ribs (five on her right side and two on her left side) completely broken away from her sternum by the steering column. Her broken ribs also caused a collapsed lung. She also had a hole in her elbow where you could see the bone from the battery acid when the battery blew up. She told me later that she developed sepsis and “died” and was brought back with the paddles. She told me that the angels told her she couldn’t stay because it wasn’t her time. The part about mom coding could be true as sepsis is a common problem with major bone breaks. My mom also lies a lot, so it is hard to say.

My youngest sister’s face was very lacerated, and she had a concussion. She took a chunk of plastic out of the dash down to metal before she even hit the windshield with her face. I think her ankle might have been sprained also. My middle sister had a concussion and broken ribs. I think she may have also sprained her shoulder or elbow.

My forehead swelled out about three inches and was split open. They didn’t clean my forehead or anything, they just put in my seven stitches. I peeled the 1/16” thick layer of blood off my forehead about three weeks later after the swelling subsided enough that it didn’t hurt to touch it. I had a concussion (possibly a TBI), a torn ACL and torn meniscus in my right knee although that wasn’t diagnosed until later. I think my shoulder hurt too, but I don’t remember if it was sprained.

I’m sure they operated on mom as soon as they could stabilize her in Fayetteville. They put a bolt through her knee and put her in traction. The weight was 45 pounds and pulled her down in the bed all the time. So even with her broken ribs she had to try and help herself get back up in the bed. Someone had to hold the weight while she did it. I did that a lot at first and then I stopped going to see her. I was surprised at how “normal” she was even a day after the accident when we finally saw her. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, she always pretended the crazy stuff was normal. Maybe for her it does feel normal because of her mental illness. I don’t know but it makes her seem super-hero tough. She was in the hospital for 45 days until they could install a metal plate in her hip and fuse the joint. This would allow all the bones to grow back together.

My family and me about 2 months post-accident. Mom is the only one smiling.

My middle sister got headaches for a long time after that and maybe even still does. My youngest sister got glass out of her face for years and years. If you look closely, from just a foot or so away you can see the scars if she isn’t wearing make-up, but they are very faint. The only thing that is noticeable at all is a little star by her eye. I have had 5 surgeries over the years on my right knee and 1 on my left. I only have about 15% of my meniscus left in my right knee and haven’t had a pain-free day in more than 25 years.

My mom walked around for two or three years with her right leg almost two-and-a-half inches shorter than her left leg and a large metal plate on her hip. It was very painful, and she had to use a cane all the time. She was extremely mean and spiteful during this time also. She finally got her first hip replacement and that changed things for her. Her legs were now the same length, and the pain was mostly gone. She was different as well, not nearly as mean. It didn’t last for her though, she wore that hip out in 14 years and when they operated, they found multiple bone spurs from her previous surgeries and just general overuse. She had gotten pretty mean again before the last hip replacement. She changed even more after the last hip replacement and soon began openly displaying what could only be called mental illness.

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So no, I haven't been the same since September 15, 1983. Aside from the physical ailments, I have struggled with guilt, anger, and low self-esteem for years. Those things started before the accident but were exacerbated by the trauma I suffered. My guilt has made it hard for me to let go of this incident, so that I can move past it. My anger has damaged relationships, my career and has hurt every one of the people I love most. I get extremely tense riding or driving in vehicles, and much more so when it is raining. I haven't maintained a healthy relationship with my body. I have misused it and overused it and punished myself for imagined wrongs. I have been very hard on myself mentally also, magnifying every failure and ignoring every victory. The feelings of guilt and responsibility have been overwhelming at times as I fought against facing these demons. Writing this story is part of changing that narrative for me, part of healing. It is part of owning the truth in my story and abolishing all the lies I have told myself for so long. Those lies were mostly about being a victim, about taking responsibility for things that weren't my fault. I realized recently that I was looking for healing at the time, and none was available. I had no idea how to process an event of that magnitude emotionally. My family was all hurt and we weren't locals to the area, so I didn't really have resources or a safety net that might have been available if we were closer to family. I spent most of the next 38 years trying to fill the hole in my life or eventually trying to close it off when filling it became impossible. Now I understand that everything I needed was always inside me.

It is time I moved past the accident and past all the pain. I think I have learned everything I need to know from that grievous event, at least enough to lay it down. Go slow to go faster. The tortoise beats the hare every time and has a better quality of life. Now it is my turn.

Thank you for reading my story. It wasn’t easy for me to write and I know parts of it are hard to read, so thank you for taking time out of your day. Every day, millions of people suffer from trauma both old and new. I hope by telling my story that someone who is suffering can know that healing is possible for what they endure. My advice is to seek professional help and don’t wait to start feeling better. If you would like to know more about my journey, ask…

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