The Hamilton Spectator
(Jun 28, 2008)
It was to be their summer vacation.
The three sisters were beyond excited. Talked of nothing else. Swimming. Sunshine. Special time with mommy and daddy.
The giggling girls and their doting parents set out for Myrtle Beach, S.C., from their Hamilton Mountain home before dawn Thursday. Fourteen hours later, Virginia State Police were pulling them from the wreckage of their SUV on a slick stretch of I-77.
Bill Smith, 33, was dead. So too Sandra, 35. And little Kaylee, seven.
Madison, nine, was airlifted to hospital. She is in critical condition. Jenna, three, went by land ambulance. She is in fair condition.
A family decimated.
These were parents who lived for their daughters. Bragged about them, talked of them -- enjoyed them -- every chance they could.
State troopers in Wythe County say the family was in a 2005 Dodge Durango hauling a 35-foot trailer. Collision experts believe something went wrong with the trailer, causing Bill -- an HSR bus driver -- to lose control. At 7 p.m. Thursday the SUV crossed the median into northbound traffic and struck a tractor trailer head-on.
The investigation is continuing.
While police say a storm had come and gone, one witness says it was still raining at the time.
"It was raining and I was watching in my rear view mirror to see how far back the semi was," writes Andy Duplay on a Virginia radio station's website.
"Then out of the corner of my eye I saw the SUV pulling a 5th wheel camper lose control. It was storming and it was almost as if the camper may have been hit with a cross wind. It flew across the median strip. Literally airborne. I watched this all in my mirror as the semi driver had no chance and hit the vehicle broadside. It was almost as if the vehicle and camper vaporized. I was shaken ... I was also the first to call 911."
The truck driver received minor injuries.
The surviving children are at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. After being notified of the crash yesterday by Hamilton police, Sandra's parents and a brother left Hamilton for Wake Forest hospital. Another brother lives in Dundas. Bill has a father in Hamilton who has Alzheimer's.
The two-storey Smith home on East 11th Street had its porch light on yesterday afternoon. Children's sidewalk chalk lay out front. Inside, the cat was waiting for its family to come home.
Next door, Edith Mann nearly collapses at the news.
"Is it true?" she sobs.
Rumours had been circulating, but they were unbelievable.
Edith is the girls' adopted grandma. They bring her food when she is ill. Shout her name when they want her to watch out the window. On Edith's coffee table is Jenna's artwork. A toddler's rainbow.
Kaylee is the tallest.
"She was a little stinker," Edith says lovingly.
"Any time you'd tell her not to do something, she'd do it. She was always go, go, go."
Madison is "the quiet one." Jenna stays home all day with her daddy, who works in the evening after Sandra came home from her job at Turkstra Lumber.
The older girls finished school Wednesday and Bill got the Durango back from the garage where it was undergoing some sort of repairs, says Edith. The Smiths planned to make a straight run for Myrtle Beach, "just stopping off to have something to eat." They planned to be gone a few weeks.
Edith got up at 4:30 a.m. to say goodbye. She stood at her front window -- the one Bill playfully lobs snowballs at to make Edith laugh -- and watched as the three children jumped about and were loaded into the Durango.
"I opened the window and I was listening to the girls giggling ... I'm yelling out the window 'Have a wonderful time,' and Bill said 'We'll be phoning you.' They always phoned me wherever they went."
Transit union president Budh Dhillon got the news late in the day yesterday. He was devastated. He knew Bill well and had met the whole family.
"This is very tragic," he says emotionally.
"Bill was a jolly fellow and an outspoken member at the union meetings."
Bill had been a city bus driver for about five years.
Above all, he was a proud family man, says Dhillon.
At Turkstra Lumber, a staff memo went out yesterday about Sandra, who worked in accounting.
Colleagues talk of Sandra's love for her family and how much she cherished her girls.
"She was getting ready to go on vacation and just enjoy some time with the family," says Paul Turkstra of the young family.
"They were taken too early."
[ I took this picture of Billy in 1992 - when he was just 17 - sitting at the back of the bus while on a youth group trip to a Toronto waterpark. ]