Rollover crash victim was giving up, expecting death, when a vanload of Good Samaritans stopped to help
In the wee hours of July 31, Charlie Whanger, 20, known to family and friends as Rocky, was lying alone and badly injured in a ditch along Highway 14 just over the line in Douglas County. Her husband Verlan Coble’s 2003 Dodge Cummins pickup that she had been driving stood nearby, its cab crushed in the rollover crash. One headlight was still shining into oncoming traffic, the engine was still running and the radio was blaring music.
“It was about 3:30 in the morning,” Rocky said Sunday, recalling the accident. “I heard at least three cars go by, but people didn’t stop.”
Meanwhile, several miles south, a 15-passenger van was carrying four adults and five kids home to Ava from a vacation in Pensacola, Florida. Tony and Tina Fletcher, and Brandi Clark and her boyfriend Bobby Don and the two couples’ kids were traveling home through the night. Tony Fletcher was driving. Their expected route to Ava would have taken them up Highway 63 from the Arkansas line then west on Highway 160 and north again on Highway 5 in Gainesville.
But for some unknown reason, the navigation system in the van had unexpectedly re-routed them, and instead of driving to Ava from the south on Highway 5, they ended up heading west on Highway 14 that early morning, just as Rocky Whanger, lying injured in the ditch was giving up.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I just wanted to give up and go to sleep.”
‘I was giving up’
A little after 3 a.m., Rocky had left the home where she and her husband, Verlan, live in Vanzant, starting her usual hour and 20 minute drive to Alton, where she works as a medical-transport dispatcher, usually on a 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. shift.
Two days earlier, as she was coming home from a housewarming party, “a guy had turned in front of me and clipped the front of my car, a little Dodge Dart. So it was in the body shop, and I was driving my husband’s truck,” Rocky said. “That morning, it was raining and foggy, and the truck’s tires weren’t brand new. It doesn’t get driven much. It’s a turbo, and when I turned from W Highway onto Highway 14, all was normal, but when I started around the first turn – I wasn’t going fast, maybe 40 – the back end broke loose and started to come around, and the turbo kicked in.”
Rocky said the truck “spun around and rolled 200 feet” before it came to a stop. She was wearing a seat belt, she said, but it didn’t lock, “and the airbags didn’t go off.” She was hurled through the glass of the driver’s side window and landed in a rocky ditch several feet away.
She lay there in the rain, unable to move. “ I couldn’t really feel anything at first, and I couldn’t move. It seemed like a long time, lying there, hearing the cars pass,” she said. “I was awake the whole time, but as time passed, I was giving up. I was done. But just as I was closing my eyes, thinking I would die, I heard tires squealing.”
Inside the van, Brandi Clark was sleeping as her boyfriend’s brother, Tony, drove through the night. “I remember hearing Tony yell, ‘There’s an accident.’ I said, “Stop!” and he slammed on the brakes,” she said.
Brandi, a registered medical assistant, works as an in-home health aide. As soon as the van stopped, she jumped out, barefooted, and ran through the rain, looking around the truck. “Then I saw her, off to the side. I told Tony and Tina to call 911,” Brandi said.
‘Mommy, please help me!’
“It was raining, and as Brandi got to the ditch, she slid on the rocks,” Rocky said. “When she got to me, she said, ‘Honey, are you OK?’ She was super-calm and was trying to keep me calm too. Then she literally turned her head and started screaming orders to the others.”
Brandi told the others to bring a blanket from the van, and she directed her boyfriend, Bobby, how to hold Rocky’s back to keep her still. Rocky’s head was bleeding badly. She is a competitive truck-puller, and she’d been hauling some 100-pound engine heads used in those competitions in the truck cab when the crash occurred. One of them had hit her in the head as the truck rolled.
“I got the bleeding on her head stopped and then checked her body for lacerations and glass,” Brandi said.
Brandi had cut her bare feet on the sharp rocks in the ditch. “But I wasn’t thinking about that,” she said. “The adrenaline kicked in, and I was focused on helping her.”
As the van passengers worked to help Rocky, “several cars went flying by” on the highway, Brandi said. No one stopped.
“She kept trying to roll and move, but I knew a number of things that were wrong, and I knew she needed to stay still,” Brandi said. “She had been ejected, and her hips were very sore, so I figured she had broken her pelvis, and she couldn’t move her legs, to I figured she had fractured her back. As angry as she got at me, I wasn’t going to let her try to get up.”
Brandi made sure her boyfriend, Bobby, kept Rocky still. She offered to call Rocky’s family. The cell signal wasn’t good, and they had a trouble getting through, but finally, Rocky’s mother came on the line. “Mommy, please help me!” Rocky cried.
Her parents, Charlie and Nikki Whanger and her brother Ethan Kile, 22, arrived on the scene before the ambulance, which came from Mountain Grove. While they waited, Brandi “kept talking to me, asking questions to keep me calm. By then I was trying to get up. If they hadn’t been there to keep me still, I wouldn’t have made it,” Rocky said.
“My brother was the first person I saw,” Rocky said. “It’s interesting. He and I have never really gotten along. He’s usually pretty loud. But that night he wasn’t saying anything. They backboarded me and then my brother carried the head of the backboard as they got me out of the ditch. I think it was the first time he ever told me he loved me.”
As the emergency personnel loaded the gurney into the ambulance, one of them turned to Brandi and said, “Thanks. We’ve got this.”
“And then they loaded her up and closed the doors, and we got in the van and went on our way,” Brandi said.
‘They did everything right’
The vanload of Good Samaritans left without giving anyone their names. First responders from Dora Volunteer Fire Department responded in mutual aid to Eastern Douglas VFD. In its Aug. 8 edition, the Ozark County Times reprinted a photo of the accident scene from the Dora VFD Facebook page. It told how “two young couples on their way back from a trip to Florida” had been first on the scene.
The post, reprinted in the Times, continued, “Their actions ... need to be recognized. We have learned that the operator’s injuries are severe. Moving her or allowing her to move from the ditch would have more than likely caused greater injury, if not permanent paralysis. They called 911, got her covered with a blanket, and two of them got down in that ditch with her, stopped the bleeding, and prevented further movement. They did everything right. ... If anyone knows who they are, they are owed a hearty thank you from every one of the medical people involved.”
The ambulance took Rocky to Mountain Grove, and from there she was taken by air ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Spring-field, where her injuries were identified: “I have six ribs broken on my right side,” Rocky said. “My back is broken in five places, upper and lower, and vertebrae are smashed. Both hips are broken and the left hip is worse because the socket is broken. My pelvis is broken in four places.”
Rocky spent a week in the hospital and had surgery on her hips. Surgery on her back will come later. After her hospital stay, she moved on to rehabilitation – with great determination. “I got out of rehab faster than anyone else with these injuries. Normally it’s eight to 10 days, not including weekends, but I was there ... five days total,” she said.
She will be in a wheelchair for another six weeks, she said. “Then I’ll attempt to learn to walk again.”
She has always been a person of faith, she said, “but especially now. I didn’t express it before as I do now. I’m thankful to be alive.”
Massive medical bills
In addition to the devastating injuries she faced, Rocky also has another daunting challenge to face: her medical bills, which now total $600,000. “I’m 20 years old, and I’m going to be in debt for a long, long time,” she said.
She has insurance, but it provided only the minimum coverage required for Obamacare, she said.
Her friends in the competitive truck-pulling circuit are hosting a fund-raiser pull for her on Saturday in Cabool (see details in box, above). Brandi and the other adults who were in the van hope to be there. Rocky connected with them when mutual friends and relatives saw the story posted on the Ozark County Times Facebook page.
Until then, Rocky is thinking about Brandi, who is recovering from her own injuries she suffered in an accident a few weeks ago when she was working in a dunk-tank booth during a Suicide Awareness and Bullying Prevention for Kids event in Ava. She fell while working in the booth and suffered injuries that have prevented her from working since then.
The two women have painful injuries in common, but they also share a fierce determination to overcome their challenges and get their lives back. At the benefit, Rocky is looking forward to seeing Brandi again for the first time since they met six weeks ago in that rocky ditch in the darkness along Highway 14.
“She literally saved my life,” Rocky said. “If she hadn’t been there, I would have died.”
Friends of Dora High School graduate Rocky Whanger will host a fundraiser truck-pulling event at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Ozarks Older Iron Club in Cabool. Dustin Ellis, Jared Ellis and Rusty Sheppard are organizing the event. Proceeds from admission fees, a bake sale and other arrangements will be donated to Rocky to help her with the $600,000 in medical bills resulting from injuries she received in a July 31 vehicle crash. Those who wish to help may also mail checks to Rocky Whanger, c/o Dora School, 613 County Road 379, Dora, MO 65637.