Dawn on game day is still two hours away and already Leo Schmitz is scurrying around his Skiatook home. He still needs to feed his miniature horses before his family makes the two-hour drive to Stillwater.
Schmitz, 54, is wearing a bright orange Hawaiian shirt that features mountains, palm trees and the Oklahoma State University logo. His wife, Sharon, bought him the shirt ages ago, but since then, she’s grown to hate it.
Sharon’s son, Mark McNitt, 49, a real estate agent, is in from Houston with his wife, Angela, for the game. Mark and Leo have been talking about the matchup for weeks. Leo is an avid football fan, but doesn’t make it to games very often.
OSU will face tougher opponents, but Mark and Leo hope the undefeated Cowboys don’t overlook the winless Kansas Jayhawks in what they think could be a magical season for OSU. Sharon isn’t a sports fan, but doesn’t mind going to games. More than anything on this day, Oct. 24, 2015, she’s looking forward to the homecoming parade.
About 6 a.m., Sean Mills leaves his north Oklahoma City home and drives toward Stillwater. He’s a little nervous for his first day at a new job. Mills, 30, is a first lieutenant in the Oklahoma National Guard. He’d recently transferred to the Stillwater-based headquarters company of the First Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment to accept a promotion to captain. Mills is aware the battalion will be helping with OSU’s homecoming parade, but the University of Oklahoma grad has no idea he’ll be drafted to march in it.
The Wyatt family is running late. Sara and Adam, both 39, met while students at OSU and try to make it back for homecoming weekend as often as possible.
They’d wrangled their two daughters, Mia, 8, and Hadley, 6, into their OSU cheerleading outfits, but they’d hoped to be out of their Stillwater hotel room by 7 a.m. to secure their usual choice spot along the parade route.
They hadn’t planned to make homecoming this year, but rain in southwest Oklahoma offered an excuse to take a break from their cattle and cotton farm in tiny Chattanooga and travel to Stillwater for the parade, tailgating and the game.
The girls finish their sausage patties and cinnamon rolls and the family piles into their Ford F-150 pickup.
Mary Cardinal is in Stillwater from Southern California, both to visit her daughter, Amanda, a freshman, and to experience the weekend’s festivities. It’s Cardinal’s first visit since Amanda started school in August, and she’s heard about how OSU goes all out for homecoming. The night before, they’d toured past the decorated fraternities and sororities as part of Walkaround, an OSU homecoming tradition. Today, they’re headed to the parade and then the game. Cardinal, 48, readies herself in her hotel room. She’s got on a bright orange, white and black OSU scarf and her favorite jeans — a dark-wash pair that she spent a little extra for that fit just right.
In east Stillwater, members of the Campbell family leave home and head toward campus. Maury, 51, a pharmacist, is scheduled to be at work at 9 a.m. inside the Food Pyramid grocery store on the northeast corner of Hall of Fame Avenue and N Main Street. His son, Alleyn, 12, plans to meet a friend to watch the parade. This is the first year Alleyn and his two brothers, who are triplets, won’t be going to the parade together.
One brother, Brandon, spent the night with a friend. The other, Collen, goes with their mom, Collett Campbell, 50, and her sister, Lennett Birgam, who plan to set up a tailgate in the family’s usual spot on the south side of Thatcher Hall, just a short walk from Boone Pickens Stadium.
Collett and Maury Campbell met during their first semester at OSU in 1983. They have attended football games, missing a few here and there, and homecomings ever since. Their boys are members of Pistol Pete's Partners, an athletic club for young OSU fans. When they were younger, the boys relished getting autographs from the university’s mascot with the oversize cowboy head during OSU basketball games and wrestling matches.
In a small yellow bungalow on Stillwater’s northwest side, Adacia Chambers gives her boyfriend a hug and kiss before she heads out the door for work. Chambers, 25, hails from Oologah, a town about 35 miles northeast of Tulsa. She’s lived with her boyfriend in Stillwater for about six months, but recently told her father she wants to move back home.
In the gravel driveway, Chambers gets into her 2014 Hyundai Elantra. She hadn’t slept well the night before, her lawyer will later say. In fact, she’s been suffering from insomnia for some time, and hasn’t slept much in the past three days. She’s due at work at 9 a.m. at Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburger, a fast-food restaurant just a few miles away where she is considered a good and pleasant employee. She’d worked an eight-hour shift at the restaurant the day before, then spent time at Walkaround with a few family members before going back to the restaurant to help clean and close up for the night.
As spectators stream in to stake out spots along the parade route, Adam Wyatt parks the family’s pickup in a CVS parking lot on the southeast corner of the intersection of Hall of Fame Avenue and N Main Street.
They put little Hadley in a wagon painted in OSU colors and Sara takes a picture. The Wyatts find an open spot on the sidewalk on the northwest corner of the intersection, not where they usually stand, but still offering a good view. The couple unfold little OSU chairs for the girls, who are excited to catch candy.
Mary Cardinal and her daughter, Amanda, stop at Panera Bread, just west of the intersection. They order hot chocolate and muffins to go. As they wait in line, Cardinal looks at her watch. They need to hurry, she thinks. It’s almost 9 a.m. The parade is about to start. She doesn’t want to miss it.
Mark and Angela McNitt and Leo and Sharon Schmitz park in the Food Pyramid lot just as the beginning of the parade passes. They’d skipped breakfast in Skiatook, instead planning to eat cheese fries at Eskimo Joe’s after the parade. Mark and his mom joke that they might stop at the OSU Student Union bookstore before the game to buy Leo a new shirt to replace the hideous Hawaiian number. For Mark, 49, it’s his first homecoming parade since he marched in one as a student in the late 1980s carrying a large OSU flag.
On the sidewalk, Leo spots some friends from American Airlines, where he works as an avionics mechanic. They chat for a moment then turn to the parade.
As a high school marching band passes, a woman tries to take a picture of one member. “Smile!” the woman yells, “I’m your mother!” The girl doesn’t even look. The crowd laughs.
As he marches along the parade route with the Oklahoma National Guard, 1st Lt. Sean Mills feels a little uneasy because of how large the crowd is. Since basic training, he’s been drilled to be aware of his surroundings, a lesson driven home by a deployment to Afghanistan four years ago. But it’s hard to pay attention to everything in a crowd this big.
Mills is impressed by both the turnout on a cool, overcast morning and the crowd’s reaction when his unit marches by. The cheering is so loud he has a hard time hearing the cadence. Staying in step is a challenge.
Mary and Amanda Cardinal move several times, trying to get a better view of the parade. They start in the Hastings bookstore parking lot on the southwest side of the intersection, then cross the street to the north side of Hall of Fame Avenue, near the northwest side of the intersection. A friend of Mary’s who flew with her from California for a girls’ weekend meets them at the parade, but goes back to the hotel early because she is cold and wants to check on her own daughter, who stayed behind because she wasn’t feeling well. When the friend leaves, Mary and Amanda step into the street on Main Street.
Kneeling nearby is Tao Wu, holding his 19-month-old daughter. His pregnant wife sits on the curb. His father, who is visiting from China, takes pictures.
Homecoming is a new experience for Wu, 34, and his family, who moved to Stillwater from Wisconsin earlier in the year. Wu works as a lab manager in OSU’s School of Geology. He has heard that the parade is pretty big and thinks his daughter will enjoy it.
After about 90 minutes, as the parade nears its end, people begin to mill in the passing wake, blocking the view of the two small Wyatt girls in their OSU cheerleading outfits. Mom and dad send Mia and Hadley with their two 12-year-old cousins to get ahead of the crowd and catch the finish. Nearby, an unmanned police motorcycle sits parked in the street on the northwest side of the intersection.
In Edmond, Dr. Robert Letton, has downed his usual breakfast: two cups of black coffee. The pediatric trauma medical director at The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center is on call, but his home state Kentucky Wildcats are scheduled to play football later on TV, an occasion that demands barbecue. The former small-college athlete plans to grill chicken and steak.
His cellphone buzzes at 10:23 a.m. He’s needed at work for a fairly routine surgery. Before leaving home, he checks Facebook. His son’s fiancee, an OSU student, has posted a picture of herself and her 9-year-old sister. They’re at the homecoming parade.
As the end of the parade nears, Mark McNitt thinks about what his group should do next. The game doesn’t start until 2:30 p.m., still four hours away, but they still need to get cheese fries and walk about four blocks west to the football stadium to pick up their tickets from the will-call window. Before they leave, McNitt’s mom, Sharon, takes a picture of a young girl standing nearby, her long blond hair in a ponytail and wearing a miniature OSU cheerleading outfit. It’s Hadley Wyatt.
Adacia Chambers drives south on N Main Street. She’d walked out of work at Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburger after less than an hour, telling a manager she needed to leave. She’d seemed distracted, not odd, but not her normal self, the manager later recalled.
Chambers maneuvers her Hyundai sedan around a police barricade straddling the southbound lanes of N Main just north of the intersection. Ahead, a few dozen feet, sits a police motorcycle. Beyond that, a crowd of people. She accelerates.
As he watches the Quapaw High School Marching Band pass by, Mark McNitt feels a gust of wind, hears a loud crash then sees what looks like chrome sailing past him. His first thought is that a drunken motorcyclist has caused a wreck. Standing next to him, his mother, Sharon Schmitz, thinks her family is in the middle of a terrorist attack.
At first, Sara Wyatt thinks a bomb’s gone off. Then, the windshield of a police motorcycle flies toward her.
“A policeman crashed his motorcycle. That’s terrible — why would a policeman do that?” she thinks.
“Look out!” It’s the last thing Mary Cardinal hears before seeing the car. The gray sedan smashes into the police motorcycle before plowing into the crowd, mowing down several people and tossing others before jumping the curb and jarring to a stop at the southwest corner of the intersection in front of Hastings bookstore, headlights broken, hood crumpled, windshield shattered.
Mark McNitt hears his mother yelling her husband’s name. McNitt looks toward the street and sees Leo Schmitz curled in a ball, lying motionless. Mark runs to Leo and checks his neck for a pulse — a skill he’d learned as a Boy Scout. Leo’s pulse is strong and he’s still breathing, but he’s unconscious. Almost instantly, police, National Guard soldiers and emergency medical technicians who had been in the parade set up makeshift triage areas. A medic stops and places a red tag on Leo, indicating his injuries are severe enough that he’ll need to be taken by helicopter to a trauma center.
The Wyatts scream their daughters’ names. Adam Wyatt quickly finds 8-year-old Mia. She’s OK. But Sara Wyatt struggles to locate Hadley in the chaos. Then she sees her 6-year-old, lying in the middle of the street beside an injured man in an orange Hawaiian shirt.
Hadley looks to be bleeding from her mouth and eye.
“It’s over,” Sara thinks. “She’s gone.”
Sara’s vision clouds to shades of black and gray, as if midmorning has turned to night. A nurse from the crowd turns Hadley on to her side to keep the young girl from choking on her own blood.
Some in the crowd pull Sara away while others administer aid to the girl.
A devout Christian, Sara is distraught.
“Jesus,” she says. “Jesus. Jesus, please help us.”
Maury Campbell hears about the crash from a Knights of Columbus member who had been helping with parking in the Food Pyramid lot. The man walks over to the pharmacy drive-thru window and tells Campbell, who is between customers, that there’s been a crash. Campbell knows one of his sons, Alleyn, is at the parade. Campbell picks up his phone to call Alleyn. As he’s dialing, he gets a call from his son’s phone.
“Alleyn, are you OK?” Maury Campbell answers.
But it’s an unfamiliar voice on the line.
“Is this Alleyn’s dad?” a woman asks.
She tells Maury that his son is down. Maury runs out of the store toward the intersection.
Sean Mills and about a dozen other Oklahoma National Guard members are standing in a parking lot behind Red Lobster waiting for a bus to take them back to the armory when a man in a pickup pulls up and tells them some people have been hit by a car and need help.
The man is calm, so Mills expects to see a minor accident, nothing like the mayhem he encounters when he turns the building’s corner.
The soldiers sprint toward the intersection, fanning out, trying to help however they can.
Mills originally had enlisted with the National Guard as a combat medic. In civilian life, he works as an intensive care unit nurse at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
His training kicks in.
Dazed, Mary Cardinal grabs her aching leg and hugs her daughter, struggling to make sense of what is happening. People are lying on the ground all around her and others are rushing to help. She sees a man carrying a girl covered in blood in his arms.
Someone asks Mary and Amanda if their car is nearby. Several people dressed in camouflage uniforms carry Mary Cardinal to her daughter’s car in the Panera Bread parking lot. Amanda Cardinal drives toward Stillwater Medical Center.
Dr. Robert Letton, the OU pediatric trauma surgeon, is driving to the hospital when he gets a text from his chief resident.
“… a mass casualty...vehicle into crowd @OSU homecoming parade …,” the text reads.
At least two children are being flown to OU.
“No report of injuries or condition.”
His thoughts turn to his son’s fiancee and her little sister, who had posted a cheerful parade picture on Facebook just moments ago.
He doesn’t stop. No time to check if they’re OK. He’s got to get to the hospital.
Sean Mills, the Oklahoma National Guard first lieutenant, stops near a girl who is lying in the street with a couple of people around her.
“Is she OK,’’ he asks. Another nurse who is helping the girl gives Mills a quick rundown of her injuries. Feeling confident that the girl is being well taken care of, Mills wades further into the crowd.
He comes across a woman who he will later learn is Bonnie Stone. Stone and her husband, Marvin, both longtime OSU employees, are among four who will die as a result of the crash. There is nothing Mills can do to help her. Some people place a blanket over her body. He moves to an injured boy sitting in the street who he will later learn is Alleyn Campbell. Alleyn’s legs are black and blue and mangled. Mills suspects they are broken. The boy is crying and screaming. Mills tells Alleyn his name and tries to comfort him.
“When I’m not wearing this uniform, I’m a nurse,” Mills says. “I’m going to take really good care of you.”
Mills tries to keep Alleyn calm and talking. He is worried about the possibility of internal bleeding and wants to try to keep the boy conscious. He also tries to keep Alleyn from looking behind him because Bonnie Stone is lying less than two feet from them.
Alleyn asks Mills what happened. Mills doesn’t know.
Lauren Pedersen and her sister are in a Chick-fil-A drive-thru ordering breakfast when she gets a group text. The sisters, who live in Stillwater, skipped the parade this year and instead are on a mission today to pick out a birthday present for their 1-year-old brother. They’re headed toward T.J. Maxx, near the intersection of Hall of Fame and N Main Street. Pedersen’s own daughter, Austyn, is staying with her mom for the day.
The text is from a doctor at Stanek Health, where Pedersen, 25, works as a registered medical assistant, asking if everyone is OK.
Pedersen calls another co-worker to try to find out what's going on. Her sister pulls into the T.J. Maxx parking lot. When the sisters learn of the crash, they throw their sack of food on the floorboard and sprint the few hundred yards to the corner.
It takes Maury Campbell just a few minutes to find his son, Alleyn, lying in the street, obviously injured, surrounded by several people.
“Dad,” the boy screams.
Maury Campbell knows his wife doesn’t always answer her phone when she’s setting up to tailgate. Instead, he calls a friend who is with his wife and asks him to tell Collett that Alleyn has been hit by a car in the parade and that she needs to get to the Hastings bookstore parking lot. He tries to say it in a calm voice, not wanting to scare his wife or his son.
When the message is relayed, Collett’s first thought is that a vehicle with a trailer probably turned a corner, jumped a curb and bumped her son. She has no idea how bad the situation is. She heads toward Hastings on foot, figuring she’ll get there faster walking than driving.
Collett passes a grassy area to the east of Gallagher-Iba Arena, where the OSU band is practicing. She hears an announcement over what sounds like a megaphone that everyone needs to clear the field. Life Flight needs to land. Collett calls her husband and asks if she needs to stay where she is. He tells her to keep walking. As she nears the intersection, she passes some people who are holding hands, crying.
Strange, she thinks.
When Collett reaches the crash scene, she’s almost oblivious to the devastation all around her, still not processing the severity of what has happened. She has tunnel vision, focused only on crossing the intersection to get to her husband and son.
A group of women appears from the crowd to calm and comfort Sara Wyatt and offer reports on her daughter, Hadley, lying just a few feet away.
She’s crying, she’s told. She’s talking. Her daughter is alive.
A woman kneels in the street and prays over Hadley. The Wyatts hear that helicopters and ambulances are on the way.
The Wyatts aren’t going to wait.
“Don’t do that! Don’t do that! You’re not supposed to move her,” members of the crowd scream at Sara Wyatt as she scoops Hadley into her arms. Her husband runs to retrieve the family pickup.
Sara turns to a National Guardsman who is standing to her right.
“Please. Please go with us,” she begs.
The soldier doesn’t hesitate. He takes Hadley from Sara’s arms.
They leave Mia with family. Adam Wyatt negotiates the pickup around parade barriers, through the crowd and chaos and places Hadley in the cab. The guardsman screams out the window for the crowd to clear the way.
Tao Wu’s father, Yuming Wu, is one of the first people Lauren Pedersen comes to. He’s resting on a green tarp designated for people with non-life-threatening injuries. Yuming Wu has a gash on his head. Tao Wu’s lower legs are injured. His daughter is not hurt.
Pedersen wraps Yuming Wu’s head. She takes off her hooded black sweatshirt with the words "free spirit" on the front and wraps it around him, trying to keep him warm and comfortable. Yuming Wu grabs Pedersen’s arm, looks into her eyes and says: “Thank you” — the first and only words of English he says to her. She will never forget that look.
Before Yuming Wu leaves on a university bus that will take him to Stillwater Medical Center, Pedersen writes her name and phone number on scrap paper and the name of the doctor who she works with on Wu’s triage tag, which she hangs around his neck.
Wu doesn’t have a doctor in Stillwater, so Pedersen is determined to make sure he’s taken care of if there’s anything he needs.
Moments before Leo Schmitz is lifted onto a gurney and loaded into a helicopter, Angela McNitt tells her husband, Mark, to take Leo’s key out of his pocket so they’ll be able to drive his car. Mark searches his stepfather’s pockets and finds the key. The impact of the crash has bent it in half.
After the helicopter lifts off, Mark calls family in Houston to tell them about the crash. He leaves a voicemail on his father’s phone. Moments later, he gets a text message back: "I saw I missed a call from you?, his father says. Have fun at the game and get me a T-shirt."
Mark, Angela and Sharon Schmitz are helped to a triage area. Mark has a bruise on the back of his right leg and Mark and Sharon both have cuts from the police motorcycle’s flying debris. Sharon will be picking fiberglass splinters out of her leg for the next two weeks. Angela is unharmed.
As the three wait for a ride to Stillwater Medical Center, strangers come by, offering help. A woman gives Sharon her coat. The scene reminds Sharon of television news footage from the Boston Marathon bombing.
Because there aren’t enough ambulances to handle all the injured, Mark, Angela and Sharon ride to the hospital on an OSU campus bus. They don’t know where Leo has been taken — Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Dallas or somewhere else.
Collett Campbell finds her son and husband on Main Street near Red Lobster. Alleyn is laying in the back of a stranger’s pickup. People are offering their vehicles as makeshift ambulances. A man, who Collett would later learn was a teacher from Perkins, is in the back of the truck with Alleyn. He insists on riding to the hospital with the injured boy. Collett climbs in the truck’s cab and the driver, Taylor Collins, races toward Stillwater Medical Center. Collins’ sister is also in the truck.
Along the way, Taylor Collins’ cellphone rings, someone calling to make sure he’s OK.
“I left my head back there,” Collett hears Collins say. Before too many crazy thoughts run through her head, Collins’ sister, Kelsy, explains that her brother is the student who portrays Pistol Pete, the OSU mascot that Collett’s triplets had adored when they were younger.
After Alleyn leaves for the hospital, Mills, the Oklahoma National Guard soldier, helps a woman who appears to be having a seizure. By the time he finishes tending to the woman, most of the injured have been evacuated. Those left appear to have all the care they need, so Mills does what he can, helping provide security as police comb the crash site.
For the first time, Mills begins to process the scene around him.
He sees a bent, pink bicycle about the size his 7-year-old niece would ride. Crushed candy is scattered in the street. Plastic orange jack-o-lantern buckets like children use for trick-or-treating look like they have been trampled. A toddler-size R2-D2 camping chair that’s lying on the sidewalk reminds Mills of a "Star Wars"-themed birthday party he recently attended for a friend’s 1-year-old son.
Watches, cellphones, shoes, packed bags and blood litter the street.
Mills expected to see this kind of carnage in Afghanistan, but not here, not at the intersection of Main Street and Hall of Fame Avenue in Stillwater.
At Stillwater Medical Center, doctors and nurses from surrounding communities are showing up to lend a hand. The waiting room has become a triage area.
“Help us!” Sara Wyatt pleads as she bursts through the emergency room doors.
The National Guardsman holding Hadley hands her to a nurse, who takes the child into an exam room where she checks the girl’s vital signs.
Hadley is awake.
“Mama, is this a nightmare or a bad dream?”
“No, sweetie. It’s not.”
The doctor who tends to Mary Cardinal in the Stillwater emergency room is from Edmond. Cardinal’s right leg aches and is badly bruised. A nurse grabs scissors to cut off Cardinal’s jeans to get a better look, but Cardinal stops her. Not her favorite pair of jeans. Cardinal convinces the nurse to let her daughter and friend help her remove her jeans.
Mark and Angela McNitt and Sharon Schmitz are still on the university bus headed for Stillwater Medical Center when Sharon begins getting calls on her cellphone from her husband Leo’s phone. Leo is unconscious, so they know he couldn’t be making the calls.
Mark sends a text message asking whomever has the phone to text him back. Moments later, he gets another message. A bystander, the uncle of 6-year-old Hadley Wyatt, had picked up the phone and looked through a few photos to try to find out whom it belonged to. He recognized Leo’s bright orange shirt in a photo. He wants to try to return the phone.
The staff at the Stillwater hospital break the news to the Wyatts: Hadley needs to be flown by helicopter to The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center.
Sara Wyatt’s heart sinks.
Why is it so bad that she has to be on a helicopter?
Hadley is scared; she wants her mother with her on the flight, but it can’t be.
“You’re going to have to be so brave and strong,” Sara tells her.
Too distraught to get behind the wheel, Sara and Adam are driven to Oklahoma City by a relative.
At the OU Children’s Hospital, a helicopter arrives with the first of the injured at 11:17 a.m. Six more will follow.
Cracked ribs. Head contusions. A broken leg.
The children range from serious to critical condition, including Nash Lucas, a 2-year-old boy who’d been at the parade with his mother, an OSU student. The youngster is struggling with life-threatening injuries.
For Dr. Robert Letton, the pediatric trauma surgeon, Kentucky football is far from his thoughts; he’s in a different contest now.
He wants to beat death, for every child to beat death. He wants children to walk out of the hospital doors.
He enters the operating room with his usual presurgery thought.
By the time she checks her phone at the hospital, Collett Campbell has 48 text messages from people asking if she and her family are OK. When her son, Alleyn, goes for a CAT scan, Collett posts a quick update to Facebook: “Easiest way to get info out. Alleyn was hit in the homecoming parade, he is awake, he has leg, right shoulder and head injury. He is getting cat scan and xrays. But will be ok. We will keep in touch.”
Alleyn Campbell is disappointed he didn’t get to ride to the hospital in a “cool ambulance.” Collett Campbell informs her son that he had a pretty special ride. Not everyone gets a lift from Pistol Pete, she tells him.
About 12:30 p.m., a news conference is held in front of the Stillwater Police Department. Capt. Kyle Gibbs, a department spokesman, tells reporters three people are dead from the crash and that Chambers is under arrest on a DUI complaint. Gibbs asks anyone with photos or video of the crash to contact police. A somber OSU President Burns Hargis says the university is “devastated” by the crash, and offers condolences to the victims' families. He praises first responders, particularly those who had participated in the parade and were still on the scene at the time of the crash.
Hargis notes that the university has had to cope with its share of tragedies in the past. In 2001, two pilots, two OSU basketball players and six athletic staff members died when their plane crashed in a snowstorm in Colorado. In 2011, a second plane crash in Arkansas killed OSU women’s basketball coach Kurt Budke, assistant coach Miranda Serna and OSU boosters Olin and Paula Branstetter.
“The Cowboy family pulls together,” Hargis says. “Unfortunately, we’ve had to do it before, and we're going to do it again.”
The black pickup carrying the Wyatts flashes its hazard lights as it rips down the highway from Stillwater toward Oklahoma City. They almost beat the helicopter carrying their injured daughter, Hadley, to OU Children's Hospital.
It takes a surgery team an hour and a half to clean out the wounds on her face. She also banged her left knee.
Finally, she’s resting in a room, still groggy.
To her mother, her face looks so sore and painful.
But Hadley is going to be OK.
Mary Cardinal leaves Stillwater Medical Center with crutches, pain medicine and instructions to come back later if she still can’t put weight on her leg.
She’s already missed watching the football team’s traditional walk into the stadium, something she had been looking forward to. She’s determined not to miss the game. Against everybody’s better judgment, she heads toward the stadium with the rest of her group.
A photo surfaces on Facebook of Adacia Chambers in handcuffs and still wearing her black Freddy’s work shirt, being led away by police moments after the crash. Her face appears expressionless.
In the operating room at OU Children’s Hospital, Dr. Letton looks around.
There is not a single dry eye. Not from the doctors, the nurses, the anesthesiologists, the technicians.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go.
He can count on his hands the number of children he’s lost in his 15 years at OU. Every single one hurts.
That evening the hospital issues a statement announcing that a 2-year-old, one of eight patients brought to the hospital from the parade crash, has died. Nash Lucas, 2, a parade crash victim, dies at 2:33 p.m.
Mary Cardinal arrives at the stadium during halftime. She sits in section 302, her favorite jeans replaced with the scrubs they gave her at the hospital. By game’s end, in pain and nauseous, she struggles to make it to the elevator to leave the stadium.
By about 4 p.m., Mark and Angela McNitt and Sharon Schmitz are set to leave Stillwater Medical Center. Doctors have stitched the cut on Sharon’s leg and given her a tetanus shot. The family hasn’t eaten all day. Restaurants have delivered food for doctors, and hospital staff members insist they eat something before they leave.
At about that time, Mark and Sharon get word that Leo has been taken to OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City. By now, the family has managed to straighten Leo’s car key, and a friend drives a second car key from Skiatook to Stillwater as a backup. The family drives to Oklahoma City. They go to Leo’s room, where they find him still unconscious.
After leaving the crash site, Lauren Pedersen returns to the shopping plaza to pick out a birthday gift for her younger brother. She feels numb. It feels strange to go from such a traumatic scene to the middle of a store. She'd stayed about 60 to 90 minutes at the scene caring for Yuming Wu, the injured Chinese father of a university employee.
That evening, when she picks up her 4-year-old daughter who had been spending time with her mom, she holds her as tight as she can. She can’t imagine losing something so precious.
After the game, the rest of her group is going to Texas Roadhouse for dinner, but Mary Cardinal asks to be dropped off at her hotel. There, she lays in bed and cries. She sends her daughter, Amanda, a text message: “Can you get clothes and stay the night at the hotel with us? I really need you with me tonight if possible.”
That evening, a bright orange sunset splashes across the sky. Photos are posted to Facebook and Twitter and the image becomes a source of comfort for many. Later, OSU releases a video thanking those who helped in the aftermath of the crash that includes the photo.
“These days are dark, but let the bright orange sunset on that fateful night remind us all that there are better days ahead,” the video intones.
After leaving the crash site, Mills and other Oklahoma National Guard members go back to their armory, where the chaplain talks to the group. He encourages the soldiers to take care of each other and tells them to call their buddies over the next few days to make sure they’re doing OK after they’ve had time to really process what has happened. The chaplain makes sure they have his contact information. On the drive home to Oklahoma City from Stillwater that night, still dressed in his blood-stained uniform, Mills calls his parents. He tells them he loves them.
That night, in his Edmond home, Dr. Robert Letton tosses and turns in bed. He’d watched the Kentucky football game, but really hadn’t cared.
He can’t let tragedies like this destroy him, he thinks. There will be another case. Another chance to save a life. And that child will deserve every ounce of concentration and effort he can give. He tries to convince himself that some things can’t be fixed.
They just can’t be fixed.
On Sunday morning, Mary Cardinal insists that she, her friend and their daughters go to church. She cries throughout the entire service at the Church of Christ in Stillwater. Other people in the pews around her are in tears as well. During the service, prayers are offered for the crash victims.
The McNitt family returns to OU Medical Center, where Gov. Mary Fallin and Hargis, the OSU president, are visiting. While talking to the family, Hargis immediately picks out Angela’s Louisiana accent.
At some point during the day, a representative from the hospital’s public relations department asks Mark if he’d be willing to speak at a news conference that afternoon. Mark agrees reluctantly.
A few minutes after 2 p.m., Mark and Sharon sit on a dais in a press room at the hospital while a surgeon describes the trauma center’s response to the crash. Then, Mark talks, recounting the day. Mark is still wearing the OSU sweatshirt he’d worn to the parade the day before, now spattered with blood. Next to him, Sharon still wears the same pants torn in the crash.
During the news conference, Mark describes his stepfather “good guy, everybody loves him. He would do anything for you. He loves horses and works hard. He’s a family guy, loves to have a good time. Any opportunity to see a Cowboy football game, he’s there.”
Mark tells reporters the family is thankful for Leo’s trauma team at OU Medical, who have been keeping them up to date on his condition.
“It’s been a crazy 24 hours,” Mark says, tearing up. “I think Leo and the rest of the families and children are in the best hands that they can be.”
On Monday, Mark and Angela fly back to Houston. They don’t want to leave, but it becomes apparent that, until Leo regains consciousness, there’s little Mark can do to help. He makes plans to come back to Oklahoma City later, when Leo comes home.
Though still in pain and unable to put weight on her leg, Mary Cardinal never returns to the hospital in Stillwater. Instead, she flies home Monday to California. She finds saying goodbye to her daughter even harder than when Amanda had started college in August. When the plane lands in Los Angeles, Cardinal heads to the emergency room where the full extent of her injuries are diagnosed. She has five fractures in her hip and pelvis. She also has a large hematoma on her leg.
On Tuesday, Mark McNitt gets a text message from his mother, Sharon, saying the OSU football team visited crash victims and their families at the hospital. She attached a picture — not of a football player, but of Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Mark tells Sharon that Westbrook plays basketball, not football. Sharon remarks that she had thought Westbrook looked awfully lanky for a football player.
Over the next two weeks, the grateful family of Hadley Wyatt visits Leo’s hospital room several times. Leo is still unconscious and fighting for his life. Hadley brings him a package of Life Savers candy, saying he was her life saver.
About Leo, Sara Wyatt, Hadley’s mother, feels both grateful and guilty. The family credits Leo with saving Hadley’s life, even if he doesn’t know what he did. If he hadn't been standing in front of Hadley at the time of the crash, and if he hadn't taken most of the impact, Hadley's injuries could have been far more severe. She knows that the family doesn’t have the long road to recovery that Leo does. She doesn’t understand why Hadley walked away from the crash and Leo didn’t.
It’s Halloween, a week after the crash.
Hadley Wyatt doesn’t want the kids to laugh at her appearance, she tells her mom. Her face is still bruised, swollen and scabbed.
She and her sister are scheduled to do a communications contest together for 4-H back home.
They go forward with the event; the crowd, the kids, the parents, are so kind.
Together, in a presentation called “The boo crew,” they instruct the crowd how to make cookies that look like a spider and a mummy.
It gives her such a boost.
She wants to go trick-or-treating, too.
She dresses up like a bumblebee that night.
On Monday, she returns to school, and she is nervous.
Sara goes with her to comfort her. The children, the teachers, are kind.
Several vigils and memorials are held in the days after the crash. On Nov. 3, the city of Stillwater and Oklahoma State University hold a communitywide service inside Gallagher-Iba Arena to honor the four people who died as a result of the crash, the Stones, young Nash Lucas and Nikita Nakal, 23, a graduate student from Mumbai, India, who’d arrived in the country only a few months before.
“Our response must be to honor their lives with our lives,” OSU President Burns Hargis tells the crowd. “We've learned how precious it is to cherish each other while we're here.”
Today, Adacia Chambers is being held in the Payne County jail. A judge ruled Dec. 10 that Chambers is competent to stand trial. The judge's ruling was based on a competency report compiled by the Oklahoma State Forensic Center in Vinita.
Chambers' preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 7. She faces four counts of second-degree murder and 46 counts of assault and battery by means or force likely to produce death. Each count carries a possible sentence of up to life in prison.
Chambers’ attorney, Tony Coleman, contends that Chambers is mentally ill. Days after the crash, Coleman requested his client undergo a psychological evaluation. Forensic psychologist Shawn Roberson wrote in his report that Chambers likely suffers from bipolar disorder and is not competent to stand trial. Roberson said he thinks Chambers could be a danger to herself or others if she were released without treatment.
Since the crash, doctors have had to amputate Leo Schmitz's left leg — the one that shielded Hadley Wyatt during the crash. In November, his family moved Leo from OU Medical to a specialty hospital in Tulsa, where doctors are treating his brain injury and working on getting him off of a ventilator. Mark McNitt said Schmitz is awake and able to recognize his family, but it could be several weeks before he can talk. American Airlines has told Sharon that Leo’s job will be waiting for him as soon as he’s ready.
Mark said he wants to bring Leo back to OSU’s homecoming next year. He wants to go to the parade and the football game to finish what they weren’t able to do this year, he said. Most of all, Mark wants Leo to be able to take Hadley to the game.
Sharon said she knows life will be different now. Although she’s hopeful about her husband’s chances for recovery, she knows it will be a struggle for both of them. She’ll help him through everything, she said, and anytime his recovery becomes too big a challenge for them to handle alone, she knows they have family and friends who have offered to help in any way they can.
Mary Cardinal is still confined to a wheelchair while her injuries heal. She has been seeing a specialist about three hours from her home in La Quinta, Calif. During a recent visit, the doctor said she could return to her job as a middle school counselor part time, for about four hours a day several days a week.
Cardinal already has a plane ticket to return to Stillwater in April for Family Weekend. She says she’ll be back for homecoming in the future. She missed too much this year. Next time, she hopes her husband and two sons will be able to make the trip with her.
Tao Wu tries to think about the positives from that day instead of the negatives, always thankful for the people who rushed to the aid of those in need. For his family, one of those people was Lauren Pedersen, the young woman who stopped and cared for his injured father.
Days after the accident, Tao Wu returned Pedersen's sweatshirt that she’d used to warm his injured father. As a token of thanks, he also gave Pedersen a decorative fan, which she keeps on her office desk.
Pedersen said the experience taught her to cherish every single second.
“You never know what’s going to happen next.”
For Sean Mills, the Oklahoma National Guard soldier, the crash reinforced the need to always be aware of his surroundings.
“It is the only way to stay safe in the world we live in today. We have to always be looking out for one another.”
The experience also highlighted the damage that “one bad person can do in a crowd of good people who are expecting nothing but good things to come from their day,” Mills said. On the other hand, Mills said, the incident also proved a shining example of the good that a few people can do in a bad situation.
“That intersection was full of people who were victimized by one bad person, but it was also full of people who did not hesitate to help total strangers,” Mills said. “The day could have gone so, so much worse if not for those good people who stepped up and did the right thing.”
For Dr. Letton, the loss of any patient means taking a step back, looking at a system designed to save lives and asking questions.
Every death bothers him. The day a loss doesn’t, he vows he’ll quit. But he has to move forward. There will always be another child who needs saving. Until then, he and the staff will look at the events that unfolded at the hospital after the parade crash and ask:
“How can we make the machine work better?”
The crash broke Alleyn Campbell’s left leg in two places, dislocated his knee and hip, injured a shoulder, gave him a concussion and left gravel embedded in his legs. Doctors initially thought his right leg also was broken, but it wasn’t.
Alleyn recently started physical therapy. Doctors said they will have to continue monitoring for abnormal growth.
Collett Campbell is grateful to the “angels and heroes” who helped her son. She has been able to thank some of them.
On the day of the crash, the woman who called Maury Campbell from Alleyn’s phone went to Stillwater Medical Center to get checked out. While there, she sent her son on a mission to try to find out information about the boy she had tried to comfort at the crash site. Alleyn and his family were upstairs. The woman’s son found them and explained that his mom really wanted to see Alleyn. She wanted to know that he was OK.
Later, Taylor Collins, the OSU student who portrays Pistol Pete, also would visit Alleyn at the hospital.
Alleyn, a seventh-grader at Stillwater Middle School, spent four days in the hospital. About a week after the crash, he and his mom were driving by the crash site when Alleyn asked to stop. He wanted to visit the memorial that people had created. Alleyn’s brothers pushed him in his wheelchair over to the corner of the intersection. He sat there quietly for about five or 10 minutes.
Alleyn returned to school full time in early November. He has a cast on his left leg and still uses a wheelchair to get around. His mom goes to school in the afternoon to help him at lunch and during band practice. They’ve made some adjustments to his band setup so Alleyn can still play his tuba. He didn’t want to miss the band’s Christmas concert.
On Dec. 3, Alleyn served as a marshal in the Stillwater Christmas Parade of Lights. For the first time since the crash, he donned the fluorescent-green hooded sweatshirt he had been wearing that fateful day. That morning, his mom posted another update to Facebook, this time with a photo of Alleyn grinning while wearing the green hoodie. She wrote that Alleyn loved the jacket.
“He does not want his hoodie to be a symbol of a bad day, so (he) is bringing it out to be the start of a new, good day. And the start of great parades to come.”
Despite the shock of the parade crash and all that followed, Sara and Adam Wyatt and their girls are still getting out to enjoy life.
The couple attended a Thunder game the first weekend of November.
The vulnerability of the crowds gathered in Thunder Alley was not lost on them, Sara said.
“It makes you think twice when you’re on an open street,” she said.
The Wyatts are more thankful than usual this year. Sara thinks of how, in an instant, their lives intersected with so many others in ways that will bind them forever. And she thinks about the little things in life, those moments that we take for granted, and how she now realizes they can be gone in an instant.
“We’re thinking of those other family members who don’t have the same survival story we have, or maybe lost a loved one, and how hard that is going to be, the upcoming season – holidays.
“We need to lift them up in prayer.”