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Archive for Sunday, July 16, 2000

Accident on mountain still haunts survivors

July 16, 2000

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— It's every motorist's nightmare while driving the 19.5-mile stretch of hairpin curves winding down Pikes Peak.

When Sara Alfrey pushed down on the brake pedal of her car a year ago, her foot went all the way to the floorboard.

Seconds later, the car carrying Alfrey and three other Wichitans left the road, flew 216 feet in the air and plummeted 115 feet to the ground. The car barrel-rolled and cart-wheeled another 120 feet before coming to rest.

Alfrey, 39, and her 14-year-old daughter, Erin Brown, were left comatose and with numerous broken bones. Alfrey's close friend, Chong O'Donoghue, 43, died almost instantly. Erin's friend, Jennifer Rathgeber, 14, died in the arms of a rescuer.

The year since the accident has been a time of healing for Alfrey and her daughter, who not only had to learn to walk again but were left with the grief over two lost friends. Dealing with the emotion has been a large part of the recovery.

Both are determined to keep their lives moving forward.

Today, Alfrey and her daughter still have aches from the injuries that kept them in comas for more than a week. Alfrey still can't feel part of her left arm, although she moves freely. Erin occasionally has back pains.

Erin suffered the worst injuries: a skull fracture, broken neck, broken back and facial bones, a collapsed lung and a crushed spleen.

Alfrey didn't fare much better with a broken neck, broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Erin woke up in a back brace in a Colorado hospital about two weeks after the accident. She thought her friends were fine and waiting for her in Wichita.

"I asked my dad. He said he would tell me later," Erin said. He told her about Jennifer's death on July 29, the day after Erin's 14th birthday.

While in the coma, Erin underwent surgery to place a rod and cable in her back and neck. She wore a cast on her left arm and a brace on her right.

The doctors told her father that Erin might not walk again.

"I was scared," she said. "But I knew I could do it. I thought I should try at least once."

But soon the doctors were impressed with how far and fast Erin could walk on a daily basis. Her brace was removed Sept. 21, her mother's was taken off about a month later.

Erin started high school in January and walks with the energy of a typical 14-year-old. Alfrey, who was working as a custodian at Wichita State University before the accident, returned to work in February as a custodial supervisor.

Contemplating their year, Alfrey looked at her daughter and said, "We are strong, aren't we?"

Jennifer's mother, Lisa Rathgeber, understands the ordeal Alfrey and her daughter have gone through.

"I have no ill will against the other family," Lisa Rathgeber said.

Sean O'Donoghue, Chong O'Donoghue's son, said last week he didn't want to talk about the wreck.

After the accident, the Rathgebers were the center of attention from the media and concerned friends. But when the condolences stopped and everyday living was supposed to resume, Rathgeber was left to mourn her daughter alone.

But Rathgeber wasn't alone. A memorial to Jennifer was dedicated in May. "I was so shocked," Rathgeber said. "I never expected anything so wonderful."

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