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Jerry Costello

A Horrific Accident, An Unexpected Miracle
May 17, 2015

The two attractive young women, friends since they were in grammar school together, were roommates and worked with each other at the same North Jersey day-care center. They were driving to work one morning—Friday, February 13—when the unthinkable happened: a horrific accident, a skid on a patch of ice, their car hurtling off a bridge on Route 80 and headed directly toward the Hackensack River, 60 feet below.

                They each remember thinking “Oh no, not the river!” as they flew through the air toward it. And somehow it never happened. The first responders to the crash scene, from the Hackensack Fire Department, expected to find death in the wrecked car and instead found life. Saved by a tree, the car and the women survived. Call it a stroke of luck, call it providential—call it a miracle. They survived.

                On Friday, March 13, exactly one month since the crash, the two women, Becca Winslow, 25, and driver Liz Wolthoff, 23, were reunited at fire department headquarters with their rescuers, a meeting that Stephanie Akin wrote about movingly in The Record, the daily newspaper published in Hackensack.

                “In my whole career,” said Michael Shiner, one of the lead firemen at the accident scene, “this was the most unique situation. That they were alive after such a fall; that they were talking.”

                Not only were they talking, they were filled with gratitude toward their rescuers. The firemen sawed their way into the car to get the women out and within 20 minutes the victims were on their way to the hospital. Their injuries were substantial; both women suffered broken backs and won’t be able to return to work until September. Their movements are stiff and hampered, and each household chore becomes—well, a chore. But there they were at fire headquarters, thanking their rescuers again and again, and reliving that memorable morning.

                It had started out in routine fashion when, crossing the Hackensack River shortly after 7 a.m., Wolthoff swerved the car to avoid a tractor-trailer. That’s when she hit the ice and then a tightly-packed snowbank, catapulting the car off the bridge and toward the river. A tree broke their fall and kept the car from the icy waters, but even though it had landed upright, the women couldn’t move.

                Wolthoff heard herself explaining on her cell phone, “I fell off Route 80.”

                What happened next remains a blur, but what happened a month later is fresh in their minds. There were relatives galore, taking it all in, and the women brought in a large cake to show their gratitude. They added a six-foot hero sandwich—pun intended. In return, the firefighters had something for the women as well: Hackensack Fire Department t-shirts, and honorary badges.

                There was a speech by the mayor, and hugs and kisses all around. Lots of them. There were memories, too, of the crash, of the joyful surprise the responders first felt when they discovered the victims alive. “Oh, my God!” someone had called out at the time. “It’s a rescue, not a recovery!”

                Back at the ceremony, Firefighter Mike Martinelli, on the job for 20 years, summed up how they all felt.

                “To know that they will have a chance at life and families,” he said, “it feels really good.”

 

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, PERSEVERING THROUGH PAIN AND STRUGGLE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org