Sunday, December 06, 2015

October 25, 1985 - The Circle of Life and Death

Despite the photos I post here and elsewhere, I'm more than just a goofy face with a bad sense of humor. Deep down, there are raw emotions. This is going to bring up some of them, so if you're prone to crying, get a box of tissues. If you're like me and have a heart of stone, grab a few tissues anyway.

I recently wrote about "the accident" I was in when I was a kid. I covered a lot of the basics of the story and it's a good place to start before reading this. So go ahead, read it, and then come back.

Just before Thanksgiving, I went to the office and started my day like I normally do. Because I was in a rush to get to work, I didn't check my phone for emails, messages, Instagram posts, etc. So when I got to work, I was surprised to see a new Facebook friend request. Surprised because it doesn't happen often. It wasn't anybody I knew, not a member of the KREndurance Team, and the only common thread I could find between us was that we've been to the Biltmore. I was about to delete the request when I decided, on a whim, to read the message she had sent.

Juliet's first Facebook message:

I just about shit a brick.

Her message gave enough detail to make me about 90% sure she was who she said she was and more importantly, she was somebody I've been looking for for decades.

After a few messages and emails, I was 100% sure of not only her identity, but I was also sure of her character. It was pretty easy to skim through her Facebook history and verify the details in the accident report. It was also easy to find the newspaper articles and death certificate for her mother. And reading about her story just made everything firm up. It was clear she wasn't a spammer.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let's pause for a moment. My memory, my dad's, my mom's, they've all changed over time and there are conflicts. It's been 30 years, so I expect that. So if there's an inconsistency, well, time happens. But if you have first-hand knowledge of the event, then please feel free to chime in and clarify things. After all these years, I'm sure somebody got something wrong. Even in the past few weeks, I'm sure I've re-told things here incorrectly.

The Accident
Now, let's rewind to 1985. It was October 25th, a Friday. It was dinner time and my dad and I were eating at Roma's, a local restaurant in Dahlgren. I'm sure I had a gyro with Mr. Pibb and my dad had wing dings (aka chicken wings). This is the first discrepancy in the story. My dad remembers going across the river to get a new headlamp for the van. It's possible both versions are true because both would have put us on the same route back home. But I do know the lollipop came from Roma's so that part can be verified.

We traveled up the hill on Route 206, heading west toward home. As I said in my other post, I remember my dad shouting "oh shit" or "oh fuck" or "hold on." I looked left and saw headlights. I knew instantly from his tone of voice that we were having an accident and we'd hit the car. It was one of those moments where things are moving too fast to do anything but time slows things down to make everything vividly clear. I may or may not remember hitting the car itself. That part is a bit blurry. But I do clearly remember seeing the headlights. I was knocked unconscious by the impact.

This is a satellite view of the intersection. We were the green arrow. They were the grey arrow. The red circle and arrow show the point of impact and direction of travel afterwords.

When I came to, I tried to get out of the van. I couldn't. That's where I panicked a bit. I couldn't open my door. The van had hit the other car hard enough to slide the front quarter panel over top of the door, making it impossible for a 9 year old kid to open. Probably impossible for an adult to open too. I don't know if this was the moment I developed that claustrophobic fear of being trapped or if it was always there. But that split second of being trapped in the car is what scared me the most. Or at least what I remember scaring me the most. I'm sure watching all those Rambo movies and the A-Team with exploding cars didn't help.

I remember my dad having a calm and cool head and had me get out on his side of the van. Neither of us seemed to be seriously injured and were able to walk away from the crash. We got out, walked somewhere, and the rest is blurry to me. I'm pretty sure we walked over to the parking lot of the plumbing store/NAPA store.

From what my mom and dad tell me, the driver of the other car got out to check on us to make sure we were okay. He then went back to his car. I vaguely recall an EMT checking me out to make sure I was okay. My dad and I got a ride to the hospital from a friend. It was a husband and wife. The wife worked at the school as a secretary or in the cafeteria and knew us. The wife didn't want to take us in their car and wanted us to ride in the ambulance. I think my dad wasn't that worried about our injuries and thought it would be better to ride with them than in the back of the ambulance. More than likely, we would have had to ride with the passengers from the other car since King George County didn't have many rescue squad units at the time. Knowing my dad, he probably just wanted to get us to the hospital to be checked out but didn't want me to see the other people and he didn't want to wait for another unit to arrive. So the husband drove us. I remember none of that.

I do remember hearing the baby in the other car screaming at the scene. It bothers me even now but thankfully the memory has faded. You knew the baby was scared but I didn't know if it was hurt. I don't remember much else about the scene of the accident. I know I was moved to safety and we probably stood in the parking lot of what was then a plumbing store and NAPA store. I wasn't allowed near the other car. I'm sure there were lights and sirens but I don't remember much about them.

At the hospital, I vaguely recall getting an x-ray. I'm pretty sure I was on a gurney sitting in one of those hospital gowns. I think it was either here or at the accident scene when I felt embarrassed about my under-roos. Stupid Incredible Hulk.

My parents kept a personal record of my health. It's in a green journal book that has traveled with me for years. This is the entry for that night.

After the hospital sent us home, I called my mom. She knew right away something was wrong because it was late, like 9 pm, and she was on the west coast (she had recently moved to Madera, CA). She asked if I was okay, I said I was, she asked if dad was okay, he was, then she asked about the people in the other car. I told her the driver, the dad, had a few broken ribs, the daughter in the back seat had a broken pelvis and leg, and the baby in the car seat was just fine. But there was a "fatality." She asked me if I knew what that meant, I said it meant the lady died. She was surprised and asked more. She said I had apparently read it on the accident report. I don't remember reading an accident report and just assumed I had overheard the conversation between my dad and the police officers or fire/rescue workers either at the scene or at the hospital. Again, there's a discrepancy in the story here because my dad says he didn't fill out any reports at the scene and only filled one out for the insurance company later. I don't remember reading any report but suppose I could. Either way, I knew what "fatality" meant.

She knew something was wrong right away, partly because of my voice but mostly because of the time of day. She said I started the conversation with "I'm okay and Dad's okay but..." and then I went on to tell the story of the accident. She said I was amazed that the baby "didn't have a scratch." My mom also said I had marks on my hips from the seat belt and that dad had bruises on his arm. Mom wanted to talk to dad but my dad called her later after putting me to bed. She knew he was shaken and it had been a long and hard night. After getting a similar report from my dad, she specifically asked him if she was going to talk to me about death and the lady that died. He said I didn't know. My mom said he (meaning me) does know because I knew the word "fatality" (although it could have been the word "expired," again, another minor discrepancy). Even though my dad had done his best to shield me from seeing her body, reading anything that talked about it, or even overheard anything related to it.

A few days later I was talking to my mom again and she wanted to know how I knew what that word meant. Apparently I had seen my dad fill out the form and he put a 1 down and I somehow knew that meant the woman in the other car. Both of my parents thought that was stunning. So again, more discrepancies. Either way, it doesn't really matter.

The After Story
At some point after the accident, my dad and I went to see the two wrecked cars. I remember both the van and the car being in a lot off of 301, near where the ice cream shop is now. But the photos show the van in our driveway and only the other car in the grassy junk yard lot. After some discussion, my dad and I think he had the van towed to our house because he assumed he could repair it. After finding that the body had moved off the frame, he had it towed to the same lot as the other car and that's where we took more pictures. However it happened, I'm not sure. Of all the photos I've been able to look through, I only found four Polaroids, two for each car.

I do remember emptying out our belongings when the van was in our driveway. This is when we learned that I was knocked out because I hit my head on the dash. I used to ride on the edge of the seat and kept my seat belt loose because I liked to look out over the front of the hood at the road. When my head hit the dash, it left a crack a few inches long. We also learned that I had a lollipop because it was on the floor. I was a little freaked out about being a few inches from a more serious injury.

Because the van was so damaged, it was totaled. I remember my dad fixing his small black Ford Currier pick-up so he would have something to drive. He remembers borrowing a friend's truck to have something to drive.

These are the notes I took in about 1998 after looking through the photos. This is how I recalled the story back then. So a historical account of a historical account.

The Growing Mystery
Over time, I was always curious about the family in the other car. I wanted to know if they got their lives back together. I wanted to know if they healed after their mother died. I wanted to know if they held any hatred towards us for what happened. I wanted to know if they hated us or blamed us for what happened. I just wanted to know something.

I've talked to both my parents over the years about the accident. Nothing major developed and the stories were always the same. But the curiosity was always there. I think it's the same curiosity that drives me to learn more about my own family history. And based on the impact this accident had on my life, it made the family in the other car almost feel like cousins or a long lost branch on the family tree. But I could never figure out a name or put any sort of story behind their family down on paper. It was just a mystery.

October 26 and 29 articles from The Free Lance-Star newspaper. There was no Sunday paper in 1985 and no further articles could be found.

About a year ago I gained access to the state of Virginia's death records on Ancestry. I quickly spent a few days looking at how and when people died. People I knew. Childhood friends. Children of neighbors. It was a quick way to feel really shitty and depressed. So I quickly took a break and only occasionally searched for the mystery woman that died that night in the 1980s.

I knew the accident was in the 1980s, I knew roughly how old I was, I knew where the accident occurred, I knew it was the mother that died, I knew a lot. But I didn't know key details. I didn't know the exact date and I didn't know her name. When I searched, I learned that even though you may die in a certain place, sometimes your death certificate lists your place of death as the nearest hospital, especially when you're involved in a car accident. Despite learning about other people and about how to search, I still had an unsolved mystery. I couldn't find my family in the other car.

Until Juliet sent a friend request.

Mystery Solved
After getting Juliet's friend request and reading her email, I knew the mystery had been solved. She was the person I was looking for and I was over the moon that she found me. It was like a puzzle piece had been lost in 1985 and she found it.

That Tuesday before Thanksgiving was emotional on many levels. I was profoundly happy that she found me and that I could now learn what happened to those in the other car. But I was also deeply saddened to read her side of the story. I sat there at my desk and cried three different times as I learned more about her, her family, and what happened to them in the last 30 years.

An excerpt of the February 2013 Glamour magazine article about Juliet, her sister Jen, and her daughter Emma.

The Other Car
So what happened in the other car? I really should let Juliet tell this story but I'll fill in what I know so far.

Russell Wallace was the driver of the other car. His wife, Tien Kim Wallace was in the front passenger seat. Their daughters, Juliet and Jen, were in the back. Juliet was sitting behind her mother while Jen was in a car seat. Despite being the most fragile, Jen was remarkably unharmed by the impact. She was in a car seat. I remember telling my mom about how amazed I was that the baby was fine. That was a point in the story she reminded me of several times during our many conversations.

Mr. Wallace had some injuries, primarily broken ribs. Juliet had a broken pelvis or hips and I think a leg. She also said her head and face had injuries. Mrs. Wallace died. A wife and mother of two. According to the police report, the accident occurred between 8 and 8:15 pm. Virginia State Trooper D. F. Hatfield responded around 9 pm. Tien Kim Wallace was transported to the hospital and pronounced dead by Doctor Paul Hine at 9:38 pm.

Leading up to the crash, the Wallace family spent time at Ocean City and then Assateague Island. I would go into detail about the last few days of their lives before the crash but frankly, they make me want to weep just reading them again. So I'll move on.

I'm confused about how they ended up in King George. They lived in Woodbridge, VA at the time and our little po-dunk county isn't near any direct route back home from the Ocean City area. Even if they went down to Virginia Beach and then back north. We may never know the truth but the working theory I have is that they were lost and rushing to find a way back to a major road to get home. Route 301 was nearby and if he had continued on the road he was traveling, he would have gotten there near the bridge into Maryland. It wouldn't have been the best way to get home but it would have worked eventually.

Whatever the reasons were for being on that stretch of road are moot though. The dad ran the stop sign and we hit him. We can't change the past, only learn from it.

Juliet said the local fire and rescue members that responded to the scene would visit her in the hospital frequently as she recovered. Her mirrors were covered in newspaper so she couldn't see her face. She was transported to Fairfax for an MRI but spent most of her time at Mary Washington Hospital to recover. She was released from the hospital for her mother's funeral at Quantico National Cemetery. But she couldn't walk and had to stay in the van. Her mother was buried with military honors, presumably because her husband was in the military although some records I found show she was a Staff Sergeant in the Marines. She was listed as a "consultant" for Revlon "beauty products."

Commonwealth of Virginia - Certificate of Death - Tien Kim Wallace

Moving On
This is where the Wallace family's story takes a turn for the worse. After the accident, Juliet ran away from home. Her father was abusive so she left. She ended up homeless in Washington D. C. before finally coming home. Only to find her dad and sister gone. She went through the foster care system and got her life back on track thanks to a great foster family.

She lost track of her sister and father but eventually found them. When her father died, she reconnected with her sister who had also gone through the foster system for the same reasons. Once reunited, they ended up bonding in a unique way. Jen donated an egg so Juliet and her husband could have a child. Bizarre, amazing, and true.

Video from The Jeff Probst Show.

From what Juliet has said, it sounds like her dad didn't move on or heal very well after the accident. And while I don't think that was the right thing for him to do, I can't fault him for being distraught over the death of his wife. I don't know what I would do if I had to walk in his shoes. Sadly, the story he gave his children was that a drunk driver was driving the van and caused the accident.

Meeting Juliet
I just got back from meeting Juliet and her daughter Emma. It was surreal. I think it's not only surreal in the sense that we met, but that we found each other or even cared enough to want to meet. Dad and I met them at the local Sheetz and talked. I wasn't sure if it would be a 5 minute talk or a 5 hour talk. In the end, we spent about two hours there. We talked about the accident, life before it, and life after it. The conversation ranged from light to heavy and every where in between.

After a break all around, I led Juliet and her daughter down the road to the scene of the crash. Doing that was even more surreal than meeting her. After pointing things out and chatting, the weight of it all began to settle in on me. Not just that her mom died, but more that we've both been looking for each other and we've both been looking for answers to our questions. Our families came crashing together, literally, and here we are after 30 years meeting each other for the first time.

Some people surely think we're crazy for wanting to meet each other. But I think because we were both kids at the time and both needed to heal old wounds, and were ready to heal them, it was something we wanted, or even needed, to do. Some people may not understand why we would even care about what happens to each other. But there again, we both felt the need to find out what happened. And while I think we've solved the mystery behind a lot of things in this story, there are a few more questions that have come up.

Sunset at the scene.

The Mystery Returns
After doing some quick research and learning more from Juliet and my parents, there are new questions that come to mind. Even though it isn't my family or my truth to seek out, I wonder about things. Why was the family driving on that stretch of road? My guess is that they were lost and in a hurry to get back on track. Why was the mother buried with full military honors? My guess is that she worked for the American government during the Vietnam War and had earned it. What will happen next? This is the biggest pill to swallow for me because I've had this question hanging around for so long I don't know what to do now that I have the answer. My guess is that I'll keep in touch with Juliet and maybe find an answer to a few other smaller questions I have.

Video of the intersection the day before meeting Juliet.

Missed Connections
As time passed, the accident became a defining moment in my life. Not good, not bad, just a moment that has been with me ever since and still connects me to other people. Two years after this accident, my neighbor's wife died near the same area. My family and I moved into his house last year. I know where she's buried and have visited her grave to pay my respects. Because of her death, I almost always check to see if traffic is going to run a red light as I cross Route 301. Because of the 1985 accident, I have rules about lollipops. Because of every accident, I wear a seat belt.

Roma's used to be owned by the Kufadakis (sp?) family. We loved her bougatsa, a Greek pastry dessert. My family now frequents King George House of Pizza. The owners know the Kufadakis family and last year they made bougatsa for me. It was amazing. Roma's is now run by my childhood friend Scott Coleman.

Because of the lollipop, I do not allow lollipops to be consumed in the car. My son gets one after every haircut but he knows he can't have it in the car. Sounds like a crazy rule but it's one that's stuck with me. I don't think it was a rule for me after the accident but I do know I never really allowed myself to do it anymore.

Juliet's birthday is in between my daughter's and my wife's. Her husband's name is my mom's maiden name. We both like The Goldbergs. Sometimes it's the neat little things that connect us all.

About six or seven years after this accident, my dad had another one at the same intersection. Nearly identical scenario. This time he was in the Ford Currier pick-up, traveling in the same direction, when a guy pulled out of the NAPA store on the right side of the road. Again both cars were totaled, but this time nobody was hurt. I think about both accident every time I drive through the intersection. My dad tries to avoid it now, especially since VDOT has made improvements that actually make it more difficult and dangerous to drive through.

Video from December 5, 1991. The aftermath of the second accident.

Technical Details
A summary of sorts of all the specifics I could find. In case somebody else down the road is looking for information.

October 25, 1985 - Friday - 8pm

Owens, King George, VA
Intersection of Route 206, Dahlgren Road, and Route 218, Windsor Drive, and Route 624, Owens Drive

The Wallace Family:
1979 Honda CVCC four-door sedan - BSF-985
Russell C. Wallace
Tien Kim Wallace
Juliet (Wallace) Pearrell
Jen (Wallace) Kimble

The Richard Family:
1975 Ford Econoline Van - YJY-763
Gary Richard
Neil Richard

Other Individuals and Groups:
Virginia State Trooper D. F. Hatfield - 3518
Virginia State Trooper C. W. Carrico
King George Sheriff's Office
Dahlgren Rescue Squad
Dr. M. J. Goeden - Emergency Room, Mary Washington Hospital
Dr. Paul F. Hine - Pathology Department, Mary Washington Hospital
Richmond Low - Commonwealth's Attorney for King George County

Virginia State Police Report - October 28, 1985 - # 85-21-5175

If you have information about the accident, please contact me at tk42one @