by Julie Elrod
A year ago today, it was a Thursday. That was the day the term “in the blink of an eye” was really driven home for me.
The day started out fairly productive with husband, Dan and both sons finishing an exterior paint job in Eastland. Dan, was heading to the house in Gordon to clean up and the plan was to meet up with good friend and fellow contractor, Mitch Riffle, to look at a job in Thurber that evening. I was planning on doing some running around gathering information at Eastland City Hall for MicroplexNews, then I would pick up Mitch and we would meet Dan in Thurber. Mitch’s wife, Kay had just started her job a few weeks before and was heading home from a job related trip in west Texas. After getting back to Eastland she planned to attend a senior class meeting for their daughter, Lindsay, and would then meet us at Mary’s in Strawn for dinner. Mitch could ride back home with her. Mitch, Kay, Dan and I often met up in Strawn for an evening out. It had become an almost regular thing. Mitch and I were good at debating nearly any subject. He was the one trying to make his point and I was the antagonizer. We both loved it.
The day was going good until late afternoon when things started to change. While at my house in Eastland, I locked my keys in my car. My youngest son, Brent, who was about to head to Dallas was there at the house. Always looking for the bright side of things I thought, if I’m going to lock my keys in the car, things couldn’t be set up better. It was parked in the driveway of my house and Brent was still there. He could take me on my errand, pick up Mitch and drive us to Thurber on his way to Dallas. That part all went as planned. The pickup was loaded with Brent’s stuff he was taking to Dallas, so we all rode in the front seat. Me in the middle and Mitch in the passenger’s seat. Thankfully, we all did as was our habit and buckled up for the ride. Little did we know what a ride it would be.
We had some rather interesting conversations on the trip in light of what the future held for us. Traveling down I-20, Mitch posed the hypothetical question… if the driver of a vehicle wore a helmet, and the windshield was busted out, shouldn’t the vehicle still pass inspection? We laughed. I also made the comment that the truck we were riding in had 240,000 miles on it. Pretty soon it was going to have to be replaced. Brent said we would drive it until it stopped. Also during the ride I was telling Mitch about my thoughts of how lucky I was to have had everything work out after locking my keys in the car. He laughed and made the comment that I always find a silver lining.
A few minutes later, that blink of an eye thing happened. On June 14th, 2013 at 5:20 p.m., the laughter turned to confusion, fear and complete silence for all of us as we felt the impact of someone hitting us in the rear. I remember the screeching of brakes as Brent tried to stop the truck and then the sound of crunching and bumping as the truck rolled sideways over the weeds and brush down the side of the steep embankment. All I remember is the tunnel vision of seeing the world in front of me going around and around. I felt no pain.. none of us made a sound.. nothing. I just remember hoping that we would stop before anything bad happened. When we stopped, I thought, wow.. we’re okay.
The truck landed driver’s side down. I remember seeing Brent unbuckle and sort of crouched there for a second. He immediately climbed out of the truck up through the passenger’s window. He said when he got out on the ground the first thing he saw was Mitch’s phone laying there. He grabbed it and dialed 911. I was still stunned and I remember hearing my phone ringing, but I couldn’t figure out where it was. Later I found out through a voice mail that the call was to inform me my aunt had passed away. I was having trouble getting my seat belt unbuckled. Brent asked if everyone was okay and I replied I was. Then I felt blood pouring on my face. I told him maybe I wasn’t okay. When I turned my head to see Mitch, I realized it was Mitch’s blood that was pouring on me. I kept repeating to Brent that Mitch wasn’t okay. I finally got my seat belt loose and was able to climb out of the truck myself. I took Mitch’s phone from Brent and called Dan. I knew he was waiting for us and we had called him as we got on the interstate to tell him we were on our way. I told him we were in an accident.. his son, his wife, and his best friend. I assured him Brent and I were okay, but Mitch was hurt bad. I then gave him the best directions for getting to where we were. The next phone call I made was the one that was the toughest. I had to call Kay. I knew she was headed in our direction and I wanted to talk to her before she came up on the accident. I wasn’t sure what to say. Kay told me later that she could tell in my voice that things were very bad. First she saw that the call was coming from Mitch, but when she answered, it was me on the phone. I’m always the cool, unshaken one, and this time that wasn’t the case. When she asked about Mitch, I don’t remember exactly what I told her. I was trying to impress on her the seriousness of it without scaring her… but that’s an impossible thing to do. I got it across to her that Mitch was seriously hurt but I wasn’t sure how bad.
A couple of people had stopped on the shoulder and I remember seeing them standing there looking down at us. I wondered where the vehicle that hit us was. We asked the people if they saw the other vehicle up there, and they replied no. A DPS trooper pulled up next. I was trying to impress on him that we had been hit.. that there was another vehicle up there somewhere, but he didn’t seem to catch what I was saying. I’m sure his attention was on assessing the situation and attending to those of us injured. I remember Dan walking up to the scene. The look on his face was one of sheer anguish. I knew I looked a mess with blood all over me and I tried to assure him that I was okay. Everyone kept talking about my foot. Seems I had gashed the top of it pretty good. Since I lost my glasses somewhere along the way, I couldn’t really see what the problem was. It was starting to hurt some, though. I noticed Brent was squatting and sort of leaning over. I asked if he was alright and he kept saying he was. Then I noticed my chest was aching.
Eventually ambulances arrived and they strapped Brent and I to backboards to haul us up the hill. As I was being taken up the hill, one of the EMTs asked me if that was the other vehicle involved and nodded to a car that was just beyond us. I told them that car wasn’t there minutes ago.. it must have just arrived. I learned later that the person was okay. She had apparently lost control and driven down the hill, but didn’t roll the vehicle. I guess she was paying more attention to the commotion of our accident there at that curve than she was the road.
After being loaded in the ambulance I was thinking they would take us to the hospital in Eastland and we could be on our way. I found out they were taking us to the airport in Ranger and we would be taken by air ambulance to Harris Hospital in Ft. Worth. Another helicopter would land at the Strawn exit to pick up Mitch and take him to Harris.
At the hospital Mitch was rushed into emergency surgery with his head injury. They removed a piece of his skull to allow the brain to swell. The prognosis at that time was pretty grim. He was critical and it was touch and go. He had a broken leg, lacerated lung and traumatic brain injury. As days and weeks went on, they still wouldn’t give Kay much hope of his surviving, much less recovering.
Brent ended up with a collapsed lung that caused him to stay in the hospital several days and it was many months to a full physical recovery. He was training for a marathon before the wreck, now he was just trying to be able to breath and run again.
That ache in my chest turned out to be a fractured sternum. My foot required stitches inside and out and there was some sort of damage to may ankle and my neck. I was proud of the huge seatbelt bruise though. Today I still have a foot that swells from time to time and I still don’t have full range of head movement because of my neck. But it all continues to improve.
Mitch has had to face several surgeries for his skull, his sinuses, and a couple for his right eye. The most recent surgery to put a plate in his face to move the position of his right eye up to where it should be was done last week. Hopefully that will be the last of his surgeries.
The financial burden because of medical bills and lack of health insurance for any of us has been a struggle. Mitch’s bills are astronomical because of the severity of his injuries and the long term physical and mental rehabilitation still to come. The Eastland community and those far outside of Eastland have come together to help with the Riffle’s medical bills. Higginbotham Lumberyard hosted a benefit garage sale that was very successful. Others have donated money through online sites and bank accounts set up to help. Friends took them food and the people at Kay’s job, Bird Electric, built a ramp for Mitch’s wheelchair when they first arrived home several months back. They also held her job for her while she spent months with Mitch while he was in the hospital. Many have offered words of encouragement, prayers and a shoulder to cry on. The Facebook page set up for Mitch has over 1500 followers and continues to be a place to post updates and support for Mitch. Mitch snd Kay’s children, Joshua, Julie and Lindsay have all stepped up to this challenge that has been thrust on them. Julie stays with Mitch during the day while Kay works. Joshua is the one who comes to the rescue when the things break that Mitch used to fix. Lindsay, who spent all last summer with her dad at the hospital and in rehab, just graduated high school and Cisco College and is going to TCU this fall. She plans to enter the medical field.
The driver of the other vehicle never stopped and has still not been found. A description of the vehicle was given by a Taylor County Sheriff deputy who was traveling on I-20 about the time of the accident. She had passed the accident and then passed a pickup with front end damage. She described it as a truck driven by a white male driver. It was a blue graphite metallic Chevy four door or extended cab with chrome wheels, and a white Chevrolet bowtie emblem in the middle of the rear window. She said she didn’t put the accident and the damaged vehicle together until she saw it on the news. She didn’t get a license plate number. Brent only remembers seeing a dark colored pickup or SUV in his side view mirror at the time of impact. Another person on their way to New York Hill for supper remembered seeing the vehicle on the side of the road at the Tudor Road exit examining the damage on his truck.
Mitch is able to carry on one sentence conversations and is remembering more and more all the time. He knows who everyone is and is now remembering more and more things that happened in the months before the wreck. He remembers nothing about the wreck and that, in my opinion, is a blessing. He still has a very long way to go. He can walk and the hope is that the latest eye surgery will correct his double vision he was having and stabilize his walking a little more. Although he is able to move his left arm and hand, it’s use is limited and slow. Mitch’s sense of humor is still there and to stop by and talk with him is always a pleasure.
To explain the physical ailments and the healing process is pretty easy. You can show ex-rays of before and after, throw some medical terminology into it, and give an estimated time of healing and a prognosis on how much recovery there will be. To explain what this has done to everyone’s mental health, however, is not so easy. Each of us involved in this accident has a different perspective. I don’t have a husband who is needing someone to stay with him 24/7. I can’t really comprehend what it would be like to have a husband or father that was so intelligent, quick witted, and the go-to guy for so many people before this accident, become the one who is being cared for now. No one knows how far Mitch’s recovery will take him… that, in of itself, is another problem… the not knowing. The hope is there but no one knows the reality.
It took some time for Brent to be able to drive anywhere without panic. He’s still not fond of driving out on the highway. I drive through that spot nearly daily. I never go by there that I don’t glance at the skid marks that are still there a year later. Looking at them always triggers my mind to think about the accident and the what if’s will try to work their way back into my thinking. I quickly shake them off and remind myself that what is.. is. There is nothing any of us can do to change the outcome… but.. the sick-at-my-stomach feelings, the dull ache of unwanted change, the desire to make things better are always right there… enveloping reality.
I wonder where we will all be in five years. I hope the memories of this accident will be so faded that I will actually have to look for it in my memory. As I sit here and write this, my shoulders are tense. As I thought about the accident details to share them here, my heartbeat raced and fear started creeping in. I look forward to the future with my friends Mitch and Kay. I hope that one day we will be able to head together out to eat without ever giving this incident a thought. I know though that we may have to take an alternate route to do it. I hope our conversations will once again be with Mitch defending his agenda and me trying to poke holes in it.
What this has shown me as it does to everyone who experiences these types of tragedies, is to truly treat each day as if it were your last. To realize that the last time someone parts from your presence could be the last time you ever see them. That ordinary things can quickly turn into extraordinary things. And last but definitely not least… always, always wear your seatbelt!
There is still hope that the person who caused this accident will be caught. Kay and her kids ache for justice to be done. Anyone with information should call the Department of Public Safety in Eastland at 254-629-2849.