Nearly fatal car accidents changes two students’ lives forever
JULIAN WYLLIE | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Under a semi
The second most popular song on the Billboard Hot 100 was playing the moment Brooke Hammons found herself under the trailer of a semi truck.
As Ed Sheeran sang the chorus to “Thinking Out Loud,” Hammons put her head down and covered her face.
“I was just relaxed,” Hammons said. “I just anticipated it. OK, this is it. Might as well just accept it.
“I just accepted the fact that I was going to die.”
Hammons, a sophomore criminology and psychology double major, was driving to work on a windy afternoon at approximately 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 18.
She was on the interstate for only a moment when she realized a semi truck was drifting in front of her path.
“I tried to get over to create some space,” Hammons said, but her small Honda Civic could not get out of the way in time, and as she went under the trailer, she said, her life flashed before her eyes.
She couldn’t help but think about the last conversation she had with her mother, Julie Weber Hammons.
“I thought of all the things I hadn’t said to people,” she said. “I wondered if I left on bad terms with my mom, if I had said something positive to her. Or conflicts I had with any other people—you just want to resolve it all at that time.”
She said she thought about her family.
“My sister was pregnant and I thought I would never get to meet my niece. It’s just crazy to think about,” Hammons said. “You literally see everything and it is so hard to explain.”
Her memory fades at this point, but witnesses said her car rose from under the semi and hit the median on the right side, then later spiraled out of control against traffic on the left. After the impact, she woke up and realized she was surrounded by piles of glass and a pool of blood.
Her next step, she said, was to call her mother, the first person she thought of before the end of the crash.
The winding road
More than 37,000 people in the United States die in road crashes each year, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, which amounts to an average of more than 100 deaths a day. Road crashes are the leading cause of death worldwide among young people ages 15 to 29.
After an accident, people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder may replay moments from the event over and over in their heads or begin to fear certain types of driving situations.
Jay Shideler, a junior from Lafayette, Indiana, was also in a car accident that continues to give him nightmares nearly two years after the event.
Shideler was driving home from work on a sunny Friday at approximately 4:05 p.m. when an oversized semi truck with a tractor stood in his path after a four-way stop.
He said he didn’t want to pass the truck, knowing that would be dangerous, so he took a right turn onto a country road he had never travelled before and headed down a hill at what he said was approximately 50 miles per hour.
“Next thing I know, I hit a curve that was unmarked, a sharp right hand turn, and I saw it, Shideler said. “I was going way too fast and I knew I didn’t have a chance of making it.”
As he went down this path, he tried to “bail out” and avoid the six trees that would hit his white BMW at full force. He managed to avoid the first five.
“I ended up hitting the sixth one in the air as I went off the side of the road,” Shideler said. “I remember kind of slow motion—I hit the tree, my window was open and my head snapped out of the window and I looked up at the sky. I just remember how beautiful the sky was—there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
By this point the burning BMW took his attention. He did not lose consciousness during the accident and he remembers realizing that his right femur was broken.
Shideler was pinned inside of the car and his attempts to pull his leg out of the vehicle created future nerve damage. He tried repeatedly to free himself to no avail. He said he remembers thinking that he would not survive the accident at that moment.
“It was kind of one of those eerie calms,” Shideler said. “I realized I wasn’t really ready to go.” But just as he was beginning to lose hope, a friend came to his rescue.
Anthony Zachman, a junior attending Purdue University, was in the area when he recognized his friend’s flaming car. Shideler and Zachman went to the same middle school and high school and were coworkers at the time, so when Zachman saw the vehicle, his first instinct was to run down the hill as fast as he could.
Shideler, on the other hand, told Zachman, “Leave me. I’m going to die anyway. I don’t want you to die with me.” But Zachman, who said he did not hear Shideler say this, came to his aid.
He ripped the driver’s side door open with one pull and lifted his friend up from the car. Shideler said, “I had never seen anything like it,” describing the action as “superhuman.”
Once he was out of the car, Shideler received medical treatment for his broken right leg. He was listed as a Trauma Level I case, the most severe, because he had a partially collapsed left lung and needed 250 stitches.
After the crash
Hammons has been in one car accident before, but the previous incident was not as severe. Her step-dad, however, got into a near-fatal car accident in 2014, which added to the trauma Hammons felt about her own situation.
She said she had bad dreams and she was afraid to get into a car for at least a week and a half after her accident.
“Even being on the interstate now, I freak out when I’m next to a semi,” she said. “I get really anxious.”
But since the phone call to her mother on the day of the accident, Hammons said she received a great deal of support from friends and family, more than expected.
Two witnesses, an off-duty firefighter and nurse, got out of their cars and rushed to the scene. The nurse, Sadie Skaggs, took Hammons’ cell phone and told her mother she would “make sure she’s fine until you get here.”
Skaggs went to the hospital with her and later met with the mother, who is also a nurse, outside the emergency room.
“I want to send out a huge thank you to a total stranger who was there when my daughter Brooke Hammons tangled with a semi today,” Hammons’ mother said in a Facebook post on the day of the accident. “Fortunately, there were guardian angels watching over her and she is OK.”
In Shideler’s case, he said he would wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats after nightmares of the accident. Zachman also thinks back to that day, Shideler said, and is terrified of car accidents as well. Nonetheless, Zachman and Shideler’s friendship grew stronger over time.
“I owe him my life, I really do,” Shideler said. “You will never be able to repay someone. You just hope that maybe one day you will have the ability to repay them in some way.
“I’m very lucky, very fortunate to even be here.”
Back to school
It was the worst time to miss classes, in the middle of February, as the spring semester picks up the pace, midterms loom. But Hammons didn’t have a choice.
With a cast on her fractured right arm, torn ligaments in her left, glass shrapnel in her eye, cuts, bruises and a concussion, she was forced to miss a week and a half of classes.
It was difficult to adjust, and she said things didn’t get better at first. As she battled nausea and headaches because of the concussion, Hammons took her quizzes and tests in the Learning Resource Center with the help of staff members.
“I would have someone in the LRC, write out my answers and I would speak them,” she said. “That was annoying to do.” She said she had trouble asking for help in the beginning, even if it was as simple as dropping her pencil and needing help reaching for it.
“I’m a really stubborn person and I hate asking for help, and I hate telling people that something is wrong with me,” Hammons said. “But in those kind of situations, you need to reach out to people and take your stubbornness and throw it out the window.”
Over time, she became more comfortable asking for assistance. She listed a plethora of people who supported her during her time of need: Her sorority sisters in Pi Beta Phi, her former roommate Samantha Lilly, and close friends Miranda Maritato and Allyson Reynolds.
Senior Johnny Radtke, in particular, helped Hammons through her recovery process as well.
He was the second person Hammons called after her mother and he remembers sprinting out of his class in a panic, worrying things were worse.
“She was really hysterical and I couldn’t get anything out of her,” Radtke said. “All I could get out of her was that she was in an ambulance and she was going to (Indiana University Health) Methodist Hospital.”
He later met Hammons at the hospital with her mother.
“She’s my best friend, absolutely,” Radtke said. “My heart was racing and I was probably looking like a maniac running back to my house from class. But once I knew she would be OK, I felt a little bit better about the situation.”
Going forward, after Hammons had to manage her concussion, she continuously pushed her limits to keep up with school.
But when Radtke noticed that Hammons was in constant pain, he decided to message her professors for her and explain her injuries. Radtke said every professor understood her condition and gave their best wishes.
“Everyone let me know that they were there if I needed anything,” Hammons said, and she found herself looking to help others more, since she could relate to their struggles.
“I see a lot of people walking around here with crutches and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, do you need help with your books?’” she said.
The community of care
Along with Shideler’s family, he said his friends at Butler were invaluable to his recovery process.
Shideler had to learn how to walk again after his broken right femur. The timetable for his recovery was initially listed at 18 weeks, a schedule that would force him to miss at least the first month of classes during the fall 2013 semester.
But Shideler recovered in just 12 weeks, and he came back to school just in time for the first day of classes.
Shideler, a fraternity member of Sigma Nu Epsilon Mu Chapter, said he was supported by his Greek brothers, sorority houses, independent students and the university’s administration.
In one case, Butler President James Danko hand-wrote Shideler a letter wishing him a speedy recovery.
In another, friends of Shideler sent hundreds of text messages, voice mails, prayers and best wishes.
But as a brother of Sigma Nu, he had many more allies in his corner, including Robert Gale, Robert Hickson, Brendan Loftus and Egan Montgomery.
Shideler was on the club tennis team but was unable to stay on full-time. However, he gained back some of his fitness with the help of Montgomery and Loftus. Both students, who also had athletic injuries, convinced Shideler to push himself to stay physically fit.
Shideler said Gale, who is his fraternity father, and Hickson, who is his fraternity twin, helped him stay busy and not focus on the accident.
A new chapter
After a traumatic incident, individuals deal with the pain in their own unique ways. Some cry, while others scream. When asked what message she would give to her peers, Hammons said, with a laugh, “Stay away from semis when you drive. They are scary.”
Just more than two months after the accident, she said she chooses not to dwell on the negative. What’s done is done. She said she is thankful because she knows that her fate could have been worse.
“The doctors would say, ‘Wow, you should be dead right now.’ Like, really? OK. Freak me out some more,” she said with a smile.
Hammons said she has had time to reflect on what happened and she believes that a force greater than luck saved her life.
“It definitely makes you think there is something out there,” she said. “I’m not actually that religious. I believe in God, heaven and hell, but I never really had a reason to think, ‘Yeah, someone is truly watching over me.’ But this instance might have changed my mind.”
When Radtke was asked what he thinks about the accident now, he said the accident shook him and made him appreciate time with his friends more.
“It can happen to any of us. It is unfortunate that that’s what it takes,” Radtke said. “But it makes you want to appreciate those moments and enjoy the people you are around.”
As for Shideler, he said he plans to face his fear, which consists of returning to the site of the accident with a friend or family member present.
“They marked the curve of my accident. They finally put a sign up to show that there was a curve there,” Shideler said.
“But I definitely think that I had to accept the fact that, yes, something bad happened to me,” he said. “I could’ve gotten depressed, I could’ve felt sorry for myself, but I really took it as a challenge and that’s where the Butler community helped.
“As cliche as it sounds, the Butler community is tight knit—I had people contact me that I didn’t even know and that’s what surprised me. It was a community of care. They surrounded me and helped me through it.”