The three young women piled into the back of Bo Braddock’s Ford pickup truck, happily anticipating the night of dancing ahead of them. They barely knew the other Abilene Christian University students in the front seat, but were happy to make new friends. At about 8:20 p.m., Braddock merged onto the highway,Â joking and talking with the other five on their way to go two stepping at the Grand Ole Oplin. It was supposed to be just like every other Friday night of country dancing.
Steppin’ in Time
Most of them had enjoyed the weekly open dances at Oplin Community Center, located about 25 miles southeast of Abilene, many times before.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Callie Kerbo, freshman marketing major from Murfreesboro, Tenn. “Everybody’s really nice and it’s out in the middle of nowehere.”
Kerbo was preparing for the familiar trip, but with an unfamiliar group. She didn’t know the three students in the front seat before stepping up into the back of the pickup cab on the cool, crisp Jan. 25 evening.
Two days earlier, Eric Terrazas, junior Ad/PR major from Argyle, met Deanna Romero, freshman international studies major from Sioux Falls, S.D., at Sing Song dance auditions. They danced together the next day at Guitars and Cadillac dance club. Then Terrazas invited her to go to Oplin.
Romero accepted the invitation, since she was already planning on going. She then invited Kerbo and Rebekah Cherniss, freshman Ad/PR major from Katy.
Terrazas picked up the three freshmen from Nelson Hall at about 7:45, and they went to his house near campus to wait for two of his friends.
“We hung out there for a little while until Bo picked us up,” Romero said. “We were getting to know him more, because they didn’t know him and I had just met him.”
After about 30-40 minutes, Braddock, senior biology major from Deer Park, picked them up in his blue-green 1996 pickup. The three freshmen piled in the back before Terrazas sat down in the front passenger seat. Between him and Braddock in the front seat, secured only by a lap belt, sat Lindsey Smith, junior Ad/PR major from New Braunfels.
|Robert Braddock||Rebekah Cherniss||Callie Kerbo||Deanna Romero||Eric Terrazas|
“Eric introduced us quickly,” Romero said. “We didn’t meet them very formally.”
Romero sat down behind the driver, Cherniss in the middle behind Smith and Kerbo on the right behind Terrazas.
The six, all between the ages of 18-20, set off into the dark night.
“We were all getting to know each other,” Kerbo said. “We knew Eric a little bit, but Bo didn’t know us and I hadn’t met Lindsey before.”
A few miles after merging onto the Highway 322 Loop, Braddock exited onto Highway 36 on the southeast edge of Abilene. As the group passed Abilene Regional Airport, he set the truck’s cruise control at 75 mph, the speed limit in that area of the highway. The sky was dark and no streetlights lined the country highway.
“They were making fun of my southern accent, because I’m from Tennessee,” Kerbo said. “Bo was hilarious, he was cracking us all up.”
A Dark Turn
Then, at 8:21 p.m., tragedy struck head on.
“Oh my God, I saw headlights,” Braddock yelled.
Braddock’s Ford plowed into the front of a 2003 red Dodge pickup.Â Jeffrey Davis, of Abilene, had run the stop sign turning left onto Highway 36 from County Road 107, locally known as Potosi Road.
The intersection is not perpendicular, but rather the county road crosses Highway 36 from the west at a wide angle. Davis, 27, could have cornered the turn at a high speed when he disregarded the stop sign.
The windshields and windows shattered, the chassis dented and compacted, and each seat belt locked to keep all six students from being thrown from the truck. The two trucks came to an abrupt stop facing opposite directions on either side of the highway.
Smith, 20, and Davis were pronounced dead on the scene.
Kerbo stayed conscious throughout the accident and never moved from her seat until after the truck came to a stop. She received seat belt wounds on her neck, chest and abdomen, and some scratches on her arms from the shattered windows and bruises on her face. She looked around the cab and saw everyone else had been hurt worse than she.
Everyone else in the car had shifted. Cherniss, temporarily unconscious, had fallen over on top of Kerbo. Romero couldn’t move because of some serious injuries to her back.
In the front seat, Smith had fallen over onto Terrazas, who was in a great deal of pain. Braddock, who suffered a concussion from the collision, was trying to crawl across them to get out of the cab, but Terrazas told him to calm down.
“Then he crawled out of the driver’s side window,” Kerbo said. “His face was bloody from the windshield shattering.”
Almost immediately after exiting the vehicle, Kerbo was met with help.
Marsha Harris, an ex-EMT who lived nearby but has no ACU connection, was the first person to come up on the accident. She tried to help Kerbo and the others as best she could.
“She called my mom so I could talk to her,” Kerbo said. “Then the police came, and I told them the details about the others. Then before I knew it, I was in the ambulance on my way to the hospital with Bo.”
Harris told Dr. Phil Schubert, president of the university, she was amazed with the students’ faith. Amidst the tragedy, Kerbo took her aside and asked, “Would you pray with me?”
“I know that God was there at that very moment,” Harris said.
Matt Barber, freshman kinesiology major from Frisco, was also on his way to Oplin with some friends but stopped at the accident site about five minutes after Kerbo got out of the truck. Barber, a trained EMT, didn’t hesitate to help the victims. Barber first ran to Davis’ truck, checked his vital signs, and found that he had died. Then he ran to the other truck, where Callie and Bo had gotten out already. Barber then stabilized Cherniss, Romero and Terrazas and stayed with them until they were taken to the hospital.
“I do not try to understand why I did what I did,” Barber said. “But instead, how God used me to help save three lives in such a way that brings Him glory and unifies the student body of ACU together with the friends and families of those who survived and those who passed.”
Paramedics arrived soon after, while the injured students waited, trying to not worsen their injuries. The emergency responders put four of them into stretchers and ambulances and rushed them to Hendrick Medical Center. Cherniss, who suffered the worst injuries, was Care Flighted to the hospital.
Kerbo asked nurses about how her friends were while she lay in the hospital bed, and they told her their conditions among the chaos.
“There was a lot of misinformation going around, but I had a really good nurse who kept me updated and helped me contact my boyfriend and my mom,” Kerbo said. “A couple people from ACU showed up, including Matt, and they told me how my friends were.”
That’s when she learned that Smith had died.
“I kind of already knew right when we stopped initially, that that was what had happened,” she said. “But I found out officially from my nurse.”
Kerbo received several surprise visits before she was discharged around 1 a.m. on Saturday, including someone she didn’t recognize. He identified himself to her as “the president of the university you attend.”
“Dr. Schubert came in, and I didn’t recognize him because he was in a baseball cap and a sweatshirt,” she said. “I asked him who he was, and then I was really sorry I forgot his name. He made sure I knew everyone was praying for me.”
Fear Turns to Grief
Hundreds of other students crowded in the waiting room to hear the victims’ statuses. When Smith’s death was announced, the group’s collective emotion poured out in tears, hugs and disbelief.
Mark Lewis, assistant dean for Spiritual Life and Chapel Programs, said Barber, the first responder to the accident, went with the victims to Hendrick and Lewis saw him pushing Terrazas’ wheelchair out of the discharge room at 2 a.m. Barber said he stayed with the victims until 5:30 a.m.
Braddock was also released soon after midnight.
Romero remained hospitalized for one week, Cherniss for two. Romero suffered a broken collarbone and fractured vertebrae. Cherniss underwent surgery a week after the accident on her jaw and two fractured vertebrae.
Romero’s Cornerstone instructor, Karen Cukrowski, offered her to stay in her family’s home while she recovers. She stayed there for a few weeks with her mother, Marcia Holliway, until she could move back into Nelson Hall. She Skyped into her classes once her back had improved enough to sit up.
Cherniss was taken to a rehabilitation hospital near her home in Katy after she was released. She intends to return to the university in the fall.
A Community Grows Closer
Kerbo said the university community’s response has been more than enough.
“I knew ACU reacted quickly to things like this, but Dr. Schubert was there within an hour,” she said. “It was nice to see that kind of support. I know the entire Mabee dorm went down to the library to pray for us. There was hundreds of people there waiting to see how we were. I had 64 text messages when I reopened my phone, which took me an hour to get all the way through them.”
It’s not the first time current students responded to a fatal accident.
On Nov. 4, 2011, 12 students, three faculty and one faculty spouse from the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Science were headed for a mission trip at Medina Children’s Home, located almost four hours from Abilene. About an hour and a half into the trip, the group’s bus veered off the road, slammed into a concrete culvert and flipped end-over-end as it careened across County Road 234. Twelve of the 16 were thrown from the bus, seven remained hospitalized for more than a week and one student, Anabel Reid, died in the crash.
For many students, the bus accident was the first thing that came to mind when they heard about the car accident on Jan. 25.
Friends and family of the victims sat near the stage in Monday’s Chapel service dedicated to Smith and the other victims in the accident. During the service, Schubert said God’s kingdom will continue to be glorified.
“As we move forward may we do so with hope, trust and perseverance,” he said. “Although it may not be easy and the pain may be great, God will walk with us every step of the way.”
Callie said while she didn’t know Smith before Friday night, she will remember her friendly smile and personality from that trip to Oplin cut short.
“Lindsey seemed really sweet and funny,” Callie said. “We were joking around and she seemed really carefree and fun.”
While she thinks it was a tragic story, Callie believes there is hope to be taken from the accident.
“It was a really bad accident; there really should’ve been no way any of us got out of that, but there was a hedge of protection over all of us,” she said. “And even though Lindsey passed away – I wouldn’t want to come back if I was where she is now. I really think God is working through all of this.”