Mackenzie Kelly and her boyfriend, Timothy Bales, are back in school at Flower Mound High School. Life for the couple, both 16, is going well all things considered and slowly returning to normal.
Things could have, and probably should have, been much worse.
“You come up on an accident like that and really you expect to see dead people, no signs of life,” Cleburne Assistant Fire Chief Keith Scarbrough said. “Getting out of the truck you’re thinking you need to pull out the sheets to cover people up.
“It’s a complete miracle they’re alive given the mechanism of that wreck, hit by two 18 wheelers and the car to have so much damage.”
Car and truck parts littered the roadway in the 9000 block of U.S. 67 as Scarbrough and three Bono firefighters pulled up to the scene. More distressing, two halves of a late model Lexus sitting several hundred yards apart, the back half in the middle of the road, the front several yards past the bar ditch.
“It was like the truck just knifed right through the middle of the car,” Bono firefighter Roger Trussell said. “Like someone took a giant pair of shears and cut it right in half. No, you don’t expect to see anyone alive when you see something like that.”
The accident occurred about 9:30 a.m. July 27.
Kelly and Bales were heading home. Bales had to get back to work so the couple left a day early from Lake Buchanan where Kelly’s family members where vacationing.
Heading eastbound toward Cleburne, the Lexus, for some reason, clipped the rear wheel of a westbound gravel truck. The impact spun the car sideways straight into the path of a second westbound gravel truck, which was unable to stop before driving through the car.
“It cut through right behind where they were sitting,” Scarbrough said. “You had the back of the passenger seats and then ... nothing, no rest of the car.”
Why the car drifted over and clipped the first truck remains a mystery.
“They hadn’t been drinking,” said Richard Kelly, Kelly’s father. “Later on they told us they hadn’t been texting or fighting.”
Scarbrough confirmed the lack of texting or cellphone use as a possible contributing factor.
“Later on, looking at the car, we found the boy’s phone in a duffle bag in the trunk and the girl’s was in a closed zipper purse we found on the floorboard,” Scarbrough said.
The truck that struck the Lexus sustained heavy damage and came to rest off the road. Neither that driver nor the one in the truck clipped by the Lexus suffered injury.
Fearing the worst as they approached the Lexus, rescue workers were overjoyed, albeit frankly amazed, to find the couple still in the car’s front seats strapped in.
“We didn’t need to get the tools out to extricate them,” Trussell said. “The whole car was already wide open.”
Both were injured, but alive.
“The boy was unconscious, but giving appropriate movement and body responses,” Scarbrough said. “The girl was conscious and hysterical, but making the appropriate noises and movements you want to have in a situation like that.”
Kelly remembers none of it.
“I remember we stopped at a gas station and a Sonic then, waking up in a hospital later,” Kelly said.
A woman stopped at the scene first and stayed with Kelly and Bales checking their pulses and doing what she could while other drivers stopped to call 911, Richard Kelly said. The third driver who stopped happened to be a John Peter Smith Hospital trauma doctor returning home from Fossil Rim, Richard Kelly said.
Scarbrough credits rescue workers from the county, CareFlite and the Fort Worth hospitals for making the difference.
“The trauma system that kicks in for events like this is what made it possible for both of them to be here the next day,” Scarbrough said. “That trauma system in Cleburne, Johnson County and Fort Worth starts with three simple numbers, 911.
“People don’t always realize what gets rolling to them when that kicks in, the amount of training, equipment, education, experience and money invested heading their way.
Although a Cleburne firefighter, Scarbrough remains involved with the Bono Fire Department, where his father serves as a volunteer.
“I was off that day, but heard dispatch tone out the accident and headed that way to see if they needed any help,” Scarbrough said.
The trauma system Scarbrough mentioned also helps with response time in regards to launching CareFlite helicopters as needed.
“You don’t want to arrive on scene and see, this is serious and now we need to call for, and wait for, a helicopter,” Scarbrough said. “We have what we call the Golden Hour, which means we want to get them to a hospital and in the surgery room within an hour.”
The decision to launch helicopters or not begins with the 911 call, said CFD Lt. Scott Lail, who also works with CareFlite.
“Dispatch gets the information and location information,” Lail said. “If it sounds like the incident might be something serious they’ll either put a helicopter on standby to get airborne. Or, if the accident is more than 25 nautical miles from the nearest helicopter base they’ll go ahead and launch. That way, if the accident’s bad, the helicopter’s that much closer. If it’s not, they can always turn around and return.”
The level of expertise, training and equipment from volunteer fire departments to paid departments to law enforcement, CareFlite and hospital staff is astounding, Scarbrough said, and that level of training and coordination between the various groups has dramatically increased over the last decade or so.
Scarbrough joked that a lot of people still believe when they call 911 they are simply getting a taxicab ride to the hospital and that firefighters are there to help them get into the taxi.
“For one thing, 80 percent of the fire departments in America are volunteer departments,” Scarbrough said. “I think everyone in this country needs to be a volunteer, not necessarily as a firefighter, but in some capacity. I’m proud to say [the rescue workers] in Johnson County are trained as well or better than any in Texas or the U.S.
“You also have to take into account that that trauma system, when the patients still on scene or in the helicopter or ambulance, kicks in based on what’s needed and activates a suite in the hospital’s ER. So there are multiple people set up and waiting before the patients arrive. Not just doctors and nurses, X-ray technicians, lab technicians, doctors with specialties. That system helps everyone involved get on the same page with a game plan of what needs to be done right now for the patients.”
Another challenge involved tracking down family members, the rest of Kelly’s family still being at Lake Buchanan.
“It was about 11:30 a.m. before they tracked us down,” Richard Kelly said. “We got a call from Tim’s mom about noon and got hold of [Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth] about 12:15 p.m.”
Kelly said he and his family rushed to Fort Worth knowing both survived the initial wreck, but fearing the worst.
“In my head, I just don’t know how to summarize what was going on,” Kelly said. “Their car hit by an 18 wheeler, everything was just unreal and disbelief at that point for me. Driving to Fort Worth I just had these thoughts of my daughter in a wheelchair, having spinal or head injuries.”
Mackenzie remained hospitalized about 18 days, Bales a little more than a week.
The impact of the accident, among other injuries, broke Kelly’s shoulder blade and clavicle, caused internal bleeding, bruised both lungs, caused a frontal lobe contusion and left her with a host of cuts and bruises.
“I’m doing pretty well,” Kelly said in September. “I started my first full day of school today. I did half days before that because I was going to rehab for my knee and arms.”
Kelly, just over five months pregnant at the time, lost her baby, but things could have been worse. Mackenzie’s older sister, Mallory, considered catching a ride home with Mackenzie and Bales, but decided to stay with her family.
“And she would have been in the back seat,” Richard Kelly said. “And, well, I can’t even bring myself to think about that.”
Kelly credits the rescue workers on scene and hospital personnel for saving his daughter’s and Bales’ lives and said it’s “crazy” that Mackenzie managed to recover enough to begin school on time.
“She’s doing well with the grieving process, Tim too,” Kelly said when asked how the couple are dealing with the aftermath. “It’s amazing to see how kids bounce back at that age and unbelievable to remember what it was like to be 16.”
Her parents, Mackenzie said, remain very attached, checking in often to make sure she’s OK.
“Mallory calls a lot too, nervous about driving,” Mackenzie Kelly said. “It’s weird really because I saw the car later and think it’s crazy that we lived through that. But I don’t remember the wreck and really can’t associate with it. But things are getting better and everything happens for a reason.”
A restaurant in Flower Mound held a fundraiser for the couple, Richard Kelly said. About a month after the accident, Kelly and her family met with rescue workers at CareFlite’s Grand Prairie headquarters. Expecting to see just the helicopter personnel who responded to the scene, Richard Kelly said he was blown away to see numerous firefighters and other rescue and hospital ICU workers attend. Rescue workers discussed with the family how they came upon the scene and actions taken to save Kelly and Bales, Richard Kelly said.
CareFlite CEO Jim Swartz said such get togethers between rescue workers and patients are always heartwarming. Scarbrough, who attended the CareFlite event, agrees.
“It was good to see them,” Scarbrough said. “Because we see a lot of bad outcomes and death. We train for that and see it, but it’s still never easy. To see people come through something like that wreck, it’s amazing. It reminds us why we’re here and makes us want to try harder.”