Witnesses who saw a fiery crash along U.S. 12 and its aftermath Sunday said they were unable to help a family of four trapped inside their car.
“I was sitting in my house watching TV and I heard a big explosion,” said Larry Livengood.
He ran outside to a ball of fire and innocent cries in his front yard.
“Immediately you could hear a child crying in the back of the one vehicle. It was very disturbing to see because there was nothing you could do, with the flames so hot and intense,” he recalled, tears in his eyes. “Nobody could get that close to it.”
That child, 1-year-old Devin Stone, was trapped inside the car, upside down alongside his father, 50-year-old Curtis Stone, his mother, 35-year-old Stacey Garza and his grandmother, 57-year-old Kathleen Marks. The child and his parents lived in Mishawaka. His grandmother lived in South Bend.
“I just knelt down and started praying for them. That’s all I could do,” Livengood added.
The crash happened around 3:15 Sunday afternoon along a curve on U.S. 12, about a half mile east of Bell Road in Cass County.
Police said Cecilia Cheney, 43, of Niles, was eastbound on U.S. 12 when her pickup truck left the road then went back onto the road, crossing the center line. She hit the car carrying the family of four head-on. Both vehicles rolled, immediately bursting into flames. One witness told WSBT both gas tanks exploded shortly after impact.
Cheney made it out of the crash with non-life threatening injuries, but was transported to a local hospital.
The morning after the crash, Livengood’s wife Lynne found a note in the charred debris from Stacey Garza written to Kathleen Marks, dated January 2011. Part of it read: “Mom, I love you with all my heart and you have been my best friend my whole life."
Both firefighters and police told WSBT that stretch of U.S. 12 is not particularly dangerous, but people like the Livengoods who have lived there a long time said the curve has caused a few accidents over the years and a lot of near misses. The shoulder along the curve is gravel, and the Livengoods said they’ve seen drivers lose control.
“[The] same thing happened with a car that went off the road back here, and came back on. [The driver] over-compensated and hit a truck head-on. Same thing,” said Larry Livengood.
But what he and others – including first responders – saw Sunday afternoon will stay with them forever.
“It hits home,” said Niles Township Fire Lt. Doug Myers, one of the first firefighters on scene Sunday afternoon. “I told the guys last night when we got done, ‘Go home, make sure you hug your families. Thank the Lord that you still have them.”
When first responders come across particularly horrific scenes, they’ll often bring in a Critical Incident Stress Management team to help them cope.
“There are things people don’t realize and firefighters don’t realize can happen through something like this later on” Myers said. “And that team is really good about letting you know what to look for and what the family needs to look for, because a lot of times it’s the family that sees the stress we might not be aware of.”
Niles Twp. Fire Chief Gary Brovold told WSBT he’ll keep an eye on his firefighters and continue promoting conversations about the crash aftermath to make sure they’re OK.