Saturday, September 24, 2011

Remembering 09-24-01

Ten years ago today, I literally saw my life flash before my eyes. But before I get to what happened on September 24, 2001, I need to back up a little bit.

Only a few weeks before, the USA had suffered a terrible act of terrorism and we were in mourning as a country. Countless people had lost their lives in an unspeakable act. I didn't know anyone who had personally been affected by the 9-11 tragedy but I still felt a great loss as a citizen of the United States. Little did I know, a few short weeks later I would experience a tragedy of a different magnitude. One that would hit too close to home and would dramatically change my life. 

On September 20, 2001 my mother left our new home in Graceville, Florida where my father and I attended The Baptist College of Florida. She was traveling alone on her way back to our hometown of Claxton, Georgia where she would meet up with the ladies from our home church and attend a women's conference at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. I can only describe the feeling that I felt when she left as a sense of foreboding. Everything within me shouted that something bad was going to happen. I prayed for her, I worried about her. I was positive that something was going to happen to her. I remember feeling tense every time the phone rang. But the weekend came and went and everything seemed to be just fine. 

When we moved to Graceville my cousin David moved in with us. He had already been attending BCF for a year and to help him save money my parent's offered to let him live with us. He was a part of a BCF's Baptist Collegiate Ministry team called JAM (Jesus and Me) Teams. The teams traveled around the area preaching Jesus through drama, music, and the written Word of God. I loved drama so I figured that this would be the perfect ministry for me to be a part of. I went with David the first night to sign up to be on a JAM Team. I was later put on a team with my cousin David, his former roommate Jeromy Leary, Jeromy's new wife Amanda, Joe Hall, David Hoffman, Jody Mierop, Jeremy Gault, Frank Everson, Treeva Burris, and a few other people whose names elude me at this moment. 

The week before we had gone out for the first time as a group to do ministry. It had gone well. I was enjoying getting to know the others in my group, not realizing that by the following week, I would forever be connected to this group of people in a way I could not imagine. I have incredibly fond memories of this group of people before and after. The tears come today as I remember these people and what we endured. 

September 24, 2001 was a Monday. We were scheduled to minister to a youth group in Bristol, Florida later that day. My mom wasn't scheduled to come home until a couple of days later and I remember sitting in class that morning still feeling that sense of foreboding. Once my classes were done for the day, I went home to get ready to leave with the group. I packed my book bag with some homework and grabbed my cell phone. I remember that my dad was sitting at the kitchen table when I was leaving. I told him that I had my cell phone with me in case I needed it or he needed to call me. He told David and I to be careful and we headed up to the college. 

The running joke during that time was that Strike Force, a singing group at BCF, always got the good stuff. They had the best van and equipment. I remember looking at the 15 passenger van that we were going to be traveling in and thinking that it didn't look so safe. One of the guys, Joe Hall, repeatedly said that every time he got on that van he prayed for his life. On the way there, between all the goofing around, joking about the van we were on, and playing a game called Green Glass Doors, I forgot about the feeling that I had been having for the last several days. 

We arrived at the church in Bristol, Florida. The praise band that was a part of our team led the group in some worship songs. We performed some skits and then Jeromy Leary, our group leader, got up and spoke to the youth. I can't remember what his sermon was about but something none of us will ever forget is that he told those students, that he didn't know if he'd make it home that night but that was OK because he knew where he was going. 

Later we loaded up the van and headed back towards Graceville. On the way home from ministering we always each spoke about what God had said to us during our time. This night after we were all done sharing, Jeromy, who was sitting directly in front of me, was turned around towards the back, telling us of this great opportunity that we had coming up. We were going to be a part of an area church-wide youth lock-in at the Playground (a skating rink, laser tag, arcade type place) in Dothan, Alabama. We were all so excited. That is what we were talking about when I heard this awful noise.

To me, it sounded like a machine gun. I literally covered my head with my hands and ducked. It was terrifying. My cousin David sat to the right of me. Since we were small children he has always been the voice of calm and reason in stressful situations. At this point, the van had started to fishtail and he realized what had happened. One of the tires had shredded on our van. You know how it is on youth trips. Hardly anyone  wears their seat belt's in those vans. I'm not sure if anyone besides the driver and the front seat passenger had theirs on. I know that David and I didn't. Calmly he told the group that we all needed to put our seat belt's on. I looked down to see if I could find mine. Often those seat belts are tucked under the seats because of how rarely they are used. By God's grace my seat belt was lying right where it should be. As I went to grab it, I looked up at my cousin and he was trying to hand me his seat belt. He didn't realize that I had mine and wanted me to put his on. That's what I call love, my friends. I assured him that I had my own and we both snapped our seat belt's quickly. I'm not kidding. As soon as our seat belt's snapped the van started flipping. We flipped two and half times before we landed on our left side. 

During those moments I was terrified but peaceful at the same time. It's really hard to describe. They say that in moments like that, your life flashes before your eyes and mine did. I remember thinking that this was it and that I was going to die. I wondered what it was going to be like. In my mind I saw my family. I imagined what life would be like when they found out that I was gone. I wasn't afraid to die. I kept waiting for that moment when I could no longer feel and hear what was going on around me. All the thoughts that I had made it feel like a lot longer than it really was. When the van came to a stop, I was genuinely surprised that I was still alive. I remember saying that over and over in my head...I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive. 

Because of the way the van ended up, I was sort of suspended in the air by my seat belt. After the initial surprise of being alive, anxiety sat in. I desperately wanted to get out of that van. I can't remember but I think it was Frank who was sitting to my left and he unfastened my seat belt for me. I had blood dripping all over me and in my hair. I climbed my way out of the van and what I saw changed me. I won't describe in detail for you because what I saw was so traumatic that I didn't sleep alone for weeks after it was over. I ended up having to see the counselor at the school and having a treatment done to me that is often done on war vets to help with PTSD. It will suffice to say that I saw four of my friends laying on the highway and in the grass. 

I had blood on me, I was missing a shoe, and I remember looking around thinking that surely I was sitting in a theater somewhere watching a movie about someone elses life because surely this couldn't be mine. Behind us traffic was backing up. I was paralyzed by what I saw. I watched as my cousin David tried desperately to help his friend Jeromy. David was bleeding pretty badly from his head and I was worried about him. This also reminded me to check my injuries. I couldn't really find anything that was wrong with me other than a bump on my hand and some gravel in my arm. I later realized that the blood on me had not been my own but David's as it had dripped on me from his head while we were suspended by our seat belt's. 

A man came up to me and asked me what he could do for me. There was no way I was going back in that van so I asked him to find my shoe and my book bag. Once he retrieved those, I called my dad. Back then, we had dial-up Internet and I remember praying that my brother wasn't on the Internet so that I could get through to him. My brother answered the phone and I told him to hurry up and let me talk to dad. When my dad got on the phone I told him that we had been in a bad accident and that David and I were fine but I thought we had lost some of them. I know he didn't want to believe it because he asked me what I meant by that. "Dad some of them are dead." Six of the worst words I have ever had to say in my life. I assured him that I was fine but a little worried about David since his head was bleeding pretty badly. I found out where we were and he said he was on the way. 

I remember others in the group doing the important things like calling officials from the college. I sat down on the side of the road and tried to pray. I was so overwhelmed. No words would come. Ambulances came and carried my friends to the hospital. The least injured of us stayed behind. Eventually they made us get in an ambulance and go to the hospital as well. One of us stayed behind to let school officials know what had happened and where the students had been taking. I made sure that he would tell my dad where I was when he arrived.

My adrenaline began to decrease during the ambulance ride and I felt nauseous. Even though I wasn't injured they made me sit in a wheelchair once we got to the hospital. While everything was being done to try and save those seriously injured the rest of us were put out in the waiting area to wait to be seen and to give our account of what happened to the state troopers. I remember sitting in that wheelchair in the waiting room and my body violently shaking. A nurse had to help me to the restroom. As she wheeled me back into the waiting area, I saw my dad, our next door neighbor, and my brother. Only then did my tears come. I started shouting for my dad and wailing. 

I have many other recollections from that night. Memories of being cared for by a nurse, being left alone in a hallway on a hospital bed waiting for x-rays, being asked over and over what happened, being asked to identify a friend who didn't have any ID on him only to be whisked away at the last second. I am still thankful for that. I remember being anxious over what was happening with my cousin, being visited in the hospital room by school officials, but most of all, I remember the overwhelming peace that I had. I knew that I would never be the same but I also knew that God was good and He was in control. 

Knowing that didn't erase the pain and grief that I felt over the loss of those three men of God, Jeromy Leary, Joe Hall, and David Hoffman. It didn't erase the trauma that I had been through and the subsequent issues that I would have because of that night. It didn't erase the feelings of guilt that I had because I had been spared while others had died. But God used that moment and time in my life to shape me into the person I am. I learned more about God and His character through that one experience more so than any other. I learned of His love, His sovereignty, His grace. There are times when I begin to take life for granted and I forget how short this life really is and in those moments I am once again taken back to this day.

Those three men will not be forgotten. I think about and pray for their families always during this time of year. If God had not chosen to spare my life that night, then I wouldn't have the privilege of being a wife and mother. I am thankful to be alive today and I am thankful for the lives of my friends He also chose to spare that night. We were all changed. We all dealt with the trauma we had experienced differently but we all came  away from that experience with the same truth...God is good ALL the time.

I recently posted a link to the only article I could still find online about that tragic night on my Facebook page. In it, a quote by Dr. Kinchen, the president of BCF, stuck out to me and summed it up best, "some people live for 100 years and don't make much of a difference, but some live but briefly and change our lives."

You can view it here.

*Look for part two soon. I want to share with you my dad's story from that night. Feel free to leave comments and your thoughts and recollections.  Love you all!


  1. Jess this is the first time I've ever heard or read a first-hand account of what happened. I know it's been ten years ago, but I'm so, so sorry for what you had to go through. I'm kinda fighting back tears as I write this. As much as we at the college grieved, I know that what we experienced is nothing compared to what you and the others went through. I'm so glad you put on your seatbelt. I wish the others had, but it's too late for should-haves and wishes. I know I don't know you very well perhaps compared to some of the others we went to school with, but just want to say I am thankful you're alive and that you're my friend. I'm thankful for the internet and for Facebook that allows us to stay in touch and get to know each other a little better. Love ya girl.

  2. I have been waiting for you to post this account! Thank you for sharing this! Its so important to share so that people know what happened, but defintely needed to be in your timing. You are blessed to be a blessing! The stories of all you heroes should never be forgotton. Love you and God bless

  3. Reading this brings back some memories forgotten. I remember being knocked out durring the flipping of the van but still remembering being tossed like a ragdoll i often find my self ashamed of being grateful to be alive when i was one of the ones who were not wearing a seatbelt. i remember comming to and feeling my arm on the high way and not knowing what happend. but i do remember david and i helping you down. I still cannot get the immages out of my mind with my job i pass the spot more times than i like and i still remember the exact layout and how every thing was and still shivver at the thought. I know that there is alot still to work on with dealing with this. But i am so glad of the friendships that we all have and i know that Jodi, Treeva, Jon, David, Yourself, Jeremy, and my self have and i know that we will always be tied together by this one event and that we will continue to rely on each other for support.

  4. I am that family member looking to know. Jeromy and I were the closest of cousins and 14 years later I am finally to a point of not crying the entire day. But this post. I feel like I needed to read it. I see him looking over the seat and talking to you. That was Jeromy. I also feel like I need to connect with you further.

  5. Your first hand account helps to bring a little more closure, some 14 years later. This is first time that I learned of your blog. Yesterday, I visited my brother Jeromy's grave site. I grieved for having lost my little brother, of whom I've always been so very proud. I found myself telling him that he'd be proud of how my life had changed, how I moved back home from Chicago, how I got married and have four beautiful children. I began to cry as I realized none of that would have ever happen if not for the accident. I never understood Romans 8:28 so profoundly, until losing my brother. God bless you, and all survivors of this tragedy.

    1. I left a comment yesterday, but I do not see it. Must have not posted.
      I wanted to thank you so much for sharing your account of what happened. For years I wondered about this entire situation and what was Jeromy thinking and doing in those last moments. I saved every single news paper article I could find and none of them explained the little details we all were wanting to know. Jeromy was my little brother that I love so much! I miss him very much. He has been such an influence on my life as the years go by. I strive to have the gentle and loving and kind spirit he had. I pray often for everyone that was in that van and the families and loved ones. And may God bless you and keep his loving hands on all of you.