Trauma Ripples, lingers after a tragic accident
Ashland Daily Press
December 23, 2022
It was the second week in November, 15 weeks after the accident, when I headed out for a run toward Maslowski Beach. It had been at least a month since I last visited this place where I witnessed an automobile accident that killed a 27-year-old mom, Alyssa Ortman, and her five-year-old daughter, Khaleesi.
I don’t completely understand why I felt pulled to visit the exact spot I was standing that day, but I am fully aware that a part of my inner world is stuck spinning on that Friday, the 22nd of July.
My memories don’t come at me in a dark and scary kind of way. It’s not like I can’t function. It’s not like I’m depressed. It’s just that whenever I’m alone and I allow my thoughts to flow freely, they always go back to that terrible day.
My daughter Jen and I had just waded in the cool water of Lake Superior before scampering across the sand to the shade to escape the scorching sun. I stood facing the highway, a short 40 feet away, watching Jen wipe the sand from her feet. And that’s when I heard the first disconcerting thunk and the piercing sound of shattering glass.
My body tightened in the instant I looked up toward the direction of the noise. I watched as a little black car careened sideways, occupying both of the west-moving lanes. The driver’s side didn’t appear damaged in spite of the crashing sound I had just heard. In that moment, I felt my shoulders relax, relieved that probably no one would have been hurt too badly. However, my relief would be short-lived as someone else’s heartbreaking tragedy began playing out in front of me.
From the left side of my view, a vehicle seemed to come out of nowhere, speeding forward like a race car. It plowed straight into the passenger’s side of the little black car.
My body jolted. “No…” I had barely whispered the word when the next hit came.
The helpless little black car was shoved into a deadly dance as it was jostled forward, spun in a half circle, and then landed in the lane of traffic moving from the opposite direction. The little black car didn’t stand a chance; there was no time to escape, and it was once again rammed into—this time on the driver’s side.
“No, no, no,” I whispered nervously, swallowing the mounting saliva in my mouth. In the stillness of the aftermath, I stood frozen. It didn’t seem possible for something like this to be real.
Jen stood next to me and we reached for each other, as though needing confirmation that we were, in fact, in that place at that time.
Shortly after the accident, when I learned the last name of the driver of the little black car, I was devastated to realize I knew the family. I immediately reached out to the Ortmans and offered my sympathy and support. I couldn’t help but think about how I was probably one of the last people on Earth who had seen their loved ones alive. Because of that, I felt a responsibility to them, to help them through their grief.
When the first news report came out the day after the accident, I was both angered and confused. The crash as described in the paper wasn’t how I remembered it. I was sure that four cars had been involved—the press only described three. This disconnect drove me into a state of hypervigilance. I knew what I had heard, and I knew what I had seen, and no one could tell me differently.
Since the accident, I could only believe that it was God who had placed me there that day. I thought He must have given me the responsibility to collect the facts so the family would know what had happened. As devastating as the news was going to be, He knew they’d want to know as many details as possible. The horrible facts would serve as a starting point for them to begin their grieving process.
As the days pressed on, I didn’t allow myself to dwell so much on the deceased. With the national attention directed toward the accident because a politician, Senator Janet Bewley, had been involved, it seemed even more important for me to keep alive the details of the collision—that became my job. Besides regular check-ins with Alyssa’s aunt in Ashland and daily prayers of strength for the family, I felt this was the best way I could support the family of the victims. I was their eyes that day, and I shared as many details as I remembered when asked.
The final investigation report was released on October 28th. I was stunned when I read the headline: “Driver in Bewley crash going 100 mph, police reports say.” The article provided a link to a video of the accident recorded by a business’s security camera on the opposite side of the street from where I was standing.
The first time I viewed the video, I was shaken all over again, but this time for different reasons. The accident I remembered hadn’t happened that fast. Each time I replayed it, my emotions volleyed between deepened sadness for the family and the same fear-like response I felt the day of the accident. I wondered what was wrong with me. I must have watched that video over 100 times trying to match my memory to what I saw on screen. Having witnessed it, I would have said the accident lasted three to four seconds from the first thunk to the last crash. On video, it took maybe one.
When the spinning inside my head slowed, I started researching how I could have remembered all those details of the accident. It didn’t seem possible with the car traveling 100mph. I also ordered a crash report as the video didn’t capture the initial collision. Between the report and learning about how a witness can be psychologically affected by a traumatic experience, I started piecing together what had happened to me.
I learned that during times of immense stress, the brain becomes highly efficient. It has a heightened sense of mastery and can rapidly take on more information than in a normal setting.
The first thunk and glass shatter alerted my fight-flight-or-freeze response. I just had to move my eyes, which took only an instant. The crash report stated that Bewley’s car was first hit directly in the front, while Alyssa’s car was hit on the right-side front. That first contact was likely the first crash I heard.
When I looked up, my fear mode had taken over and my pupils were dilated. This shift allowed for more light to get into my eyes, helping me decipher if I was in danger. In that mode, I learned that not only was I able to visually collect an amazing amount of detail, the visions I was processing also had a direct path to the part of my brain that stored my memories. I was recording so much information in that moment that the accident only seemed to be happening at a much slower speed. I don’t remember any sounds once I looked up. All my energy was focused on visually processing the chaos and wreckage developing before me.
I do believe that most of the things happened the way I originally remembered, although one would never see it in a video. I think there was a moment before the first crash to the passenger’s side of the vehicle, when I looked up to see that the mom and daughter were okay. It seemed important that I captured that poignant image into memory, because it would be the final snapshot of Alyssa and Khalisee, the moment they would be remembered for who they were.
As I continued my jog on that crisp November morning, even though the facts of the crash had already been established, I was still bothered, still consumed by the details. I thought about how it wasn’t making me so sad anymore when I thought about the metallic thunk, the shattering glass, the careening car, and the horrifying crash. And then I felt a dampness under my eyes, which was confusing. I was only thinking about the facts, yet a few more tears rolled down my face. I quickly swiped them away, berating myself for my lack of emotional strength. It was important I keep it together. How could I be there for the family if I fell apart?!
By the time I got home from my run, I could no longer deny that I was in a mourning process of my own. I thought of the numerous people who were probably suffering some sort of trauma from being involved in that accident. What I didn’t know was how something like that would affect me. I didn’t expect it to sink so deeply into my life. Feeling stuck in that space was my way of easily accessing the fear and anguish that I knew came with accidents and loss. I guess I was angry at the unfairness of it all, as seen through the untimely deaths of a mother and child who, I was told, just wanted to go to the beach.
The starting point of healing for me would begin with a deeper understanding of just how imperfect and powerless we, as humans, are.
Maybe it wasn’t the details of the crash that God had wanted me to record—perhaps He wanted to send a message of love and hope for the family who He understood lost so much that day. Maybe He wants to use me as a voice to encourage all the beautiful souls who are grieving to keep the faith. Because it is through Him, we will find the peace we seek.
If you are interested in learning more about the human reaction to a traumatic event, you can visit the sites I listed below by clicking on the corresponding title. Use the back arrow to return to this site.
Link to the video of the accident recorded by a business’s security camera. Warning: Sensitive Content