This is just the story from my perspective. I don’t intend to portray it as any more important than yours. My story is just my story. No one can avoid tragedy in this life. My tragedy isn’t any more heartbreaking than yours, and yours isn’t any more heartbreaking than mine. Tragedy is tragedy. It sucks, it’s unavoidable, and it makes you question everything. But what I’ve come to realize over the last seven years is that in every tragedy is a connectedness with the survived, hope in the eternal, and an undying love from the One who is, was, and will always be.
I called some of them friends, some of them best friends, and some of them acquaintances. Why do we call people ‘acquaintances’? That feels stupid to me now.
I was really busy with wrapping up classes and assignments for the end of the school year. The weather gets really nice at this time of year in Indiana, and everything starts to come alive with the spring. There’s a higher energy all around because the dead of the winter is finally being conquered by the sun of the spring. I struggled to stay focused on school work and always ended up cramming at the end of the year because of procrastination.
I was already behind, and working a couple of jobs, and seeing a new guy. I’d been hanging out with him for a couple of weeks- and Betsy wasn’t the biggest fan. She had warned me more than a couple of times to be careful. The consummate sweetheart, she’d heard stories from other girls with broken hearts but spared the details to protect the people involved and simply told me to ‘be cautious’.
In addition to the spring buzz, we were inducting a new president to the university. I was in training to become a student manager for our campus catering company, and we were busy preparing for the ceremonies. There were going to be numerous celebrations requiring variations of food service in many different locations. In fact, due to the sheer volume of celebrations, we had to plan a visit to our sister campus to borrow catering supplies. I was one of students who planned to go.
The day of the trip was busy. I’d been up late hanging out with the guy that Betsy had warned against. I didn’t want to tell her that he was the reason that I’d been up late, so I told her I had too much school work to go on the trip. It was true- I was behind in my school work, but I was behind because I’d been spending too much time with that guy. I left that part out. She was sweet and graciously excused me from going. I didn’t want to explain in person, so I emailed my boss to let her know I wouldn’t be making it as well. Classy.
I spent the rest of the day trying to catch up on sleep and school work. I got close. There was a big photo project due at the end of the week, so I grabbed some food, threw my photo supplies in the car and drove over to the dark room. The sun was setting, and campus was empty. I parked the car at the campus chapel, which was close to the art building, and stopped to take a breath. Sleep was heavy on me and I was trying to gather some inspiration to produce something worth matting and framing. I just stood at my car for a minute, staring at my photo supplies in the back seat and trying to talk myself into working instead of sleeping.
I focused my eyes, put my fingers on the car door handle, and let my gaze drift upward, right over the roof of my car. That’s when I noticed a friend and fellow classmate, Jon, sprinting across campus. I thought something funny was happening- maybe an end of the year prank. I watched him until he stopped sprinting. He had arrived at our Campus Safety building- an unlikely destination for a prank. When my eyes zoomed out, I realized that he wasn’t the only one running across campus. I saw not one, but two, three, four… people. Running. Not smiling. To Campus Safety. People were running from every direction, and the people who were already there were hugging each other in a desperate way- not in a casual, carefree way. I didn’t think about photo again.
I locked my car, joined the crowd, and was quickly informed that there was a catering van that had been hit by a semi-truck. I knew what van it was. I knew who was in it. And I knew that I was supposed to be in it. I ran to my car, pulled out my cell phone and called Betsy.
Called again, and again, and again.
I knew my sister hadn’t gone on the trip, but I called her anyway just to verify what my irrational mind was talking me out of. Then I called my cousin, and my roommates, and my other friends I couldn’t find. I don’t even think I had conversations with some of them. As soon as I heard a live voice, I’d hang up and call the next one. I knew none of these people had gone on the trip but when you’re mind and heart are racing that fast everything that makes sense gets glossy and blurry. It’s like you’re driving through a tropical storm and your wiper blades aren’t going fast enough even though they’re on the highest speed so you keep checking to make sure you have them turned up all the way.
We spent seven hours in the chapel that night. Our campus administrators were waiting to tell us who had lived and who had died until each family had been notified, and subsequently identified a body. There were seven people in the van when it got hit. Two people survived. The semi-truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and come across the divide in the highway. To be clear, this story isn’t about him. I wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone, and my heart breaks that he’ll have to live with it every day for the rest of his life. I pray that he can accept the grace and forgiveness that is available to him.
Our campus chapel was full at 2:30 in the morning when our campus pastor was finally released to announce the names to us. In my entire life I’ve never heard, and hope and pray to never have to hear again, the guttural moans that came out of our student body that day. As each name was read, new waves of outcries rose, and students fell to the ground or clung to each other in agony. It was honestly one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever witnessed or been a part of.
This was only the beginning of what would become a journey of slow healing and hard-won restoration for our campus body.
A short number of weeks later, we were only starting to piece together the remains of our hearts. We had been to funeral after funeral- memorial service after memorial service. Some of us were bitter, some were hopeful, some were numb. I was numb. Watching your friends be buried sucks at any age. Watching them buried at the age of 20 is confusing at best. I still can’t even begin to imagine what their families felt.
We had all left for the summer. It was a relief in some ways to be in a new environment. It was hard to be away from the people who had gone through it with us- felt lonelier. I remember worrying about some of my friends who didn’t have support systems at home. I thank God every day for the family I had waiting at home.
A couple weeks later I got a call from a friend from school. I thought he was just calling to catch up. The first thing he said was, “Whitney’s alive.” Whitney was a student whose funeral we had held. She was one of the students whose name had been read off in chapel. She’s one who we had cried out in angst for.I hung up on him.
Twenty minutes later I got a call from another friend who told me the same thing. I hung up on her too.
Then my boss, the woman who had been driving the van- one of the two survivors of the crash- called to tell me the same thing. Whitney is alive. One of the students who we thought had survived had been confused as one who was actually deceased. The one who we thought was deceased, actually living- in a hospital, with a different family than her own. When she regained enough of her strength and the memory to speak, she let those in the hospital know who she really was. They dug up the body under the headstone that read ‘Whitney’ and gave it to a hopeful family in a hospital who would have to begin a painful journey of saying goodbye to their daughter when they thought they wouldn’t have to. These two families have an amazing story, and it’s one that I hope you investigate. Read Mistaken Identity.
Each one of our stories is different- no one story more powerful than the other. What remains to be true is this: tragedy is devastating and God’s love reigns. We are each drawn together and instantly and immovably connected to each other through the tragedy we experienced together. We cried together, we processed and prayed together, and we began to heal together. We are spread all over the world in God’s perfect sovereignty today- yet all bound together in the exact same place of heart. We rest in the eternal. We rejoice in our loved ones legacies, and even more in their home with our Savior. And more than anything else, we breathe in deep, the most PERFECT, UNRELENTING, FAITHFUL, and BOUNDLESS love that has ever existed- that of our sweet, sweet Father.
© Copyright 2016 Nicole Ford. All rights reserved.