Life-changing routes

A fatal accident left one-year-old Alexander an orphan.
Sunday, July 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:42 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alexander sees his mother only in pictures. Jessica Owen’s warm smile and gentle blue eyes are frozen on a framed piece of photographic paper pressed behind a thin sheet of glass.

With Alexander’s growing vocabulary he says “night-night” at bedtime, “water” when he’s thirsty and “cracker” when he’s hungry. He looks at the photograph of Jessica and says, “Mama.”

“When his mother was here, it was referring to her,” said Paula Sheen, Alexander’s grandmother. “But now, I’m not sure he knows what he’s saying.”

The last time Alexander saw his mother and father was 9 weeks ago. Photographs are the last visual link between words and reality — a boy and his mother.

Alexander’s parents, Jessica, 22, and Seth Owen, 25, were killed in a car accident on Interstate 70 in Columbia on May 12. Alexander was pulled from the fiery 1995 Chrysler by strangers. He now lives with his maternal grandparents in Cranberry Township, Pa., but also spends time with his paternal grandparents in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

On that May day in the middle of Missouri, the lives of a young family and two truck drivers became intertwined by an unusual coincidence of geography, an interstate and a tragedy.

While attending Skyline High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, oftentimes Seth would wake his parents with the rising notes of his oboe. He earned a music scholarship from Brigham Young University-Idaho, which only paid for his music lessons at the university.

Nearly 2,000 miles away, parts of songs, even single measures, resonated in the Sheen household in Cranberry Township, Pa. Jessica played her clarinet until she perfected the melody or her mother made her stop. Sometimes Jessica’s younger brother,

James, would ask their mother, “Can we hide her clarinet?”

After graduating from Seneca Valley High School in Harmony, Pa., Jessica earned a small music scholarship at BYU-Idaho.

In the BYU-Idaho Orchestra, the oboe and clarinet sections were arranged side by side. For a while, Jessica found it difficult to practice because “a boy” kept interrupting her sessions at the Eliza R. Snow Performing Arts Center. He wasn’t asking for much — some company to join him for ice cream — but Jessica was always cautious around new people. The boy persisted, and Jessica eventually accepted the offer. She wanted to continue practicing uninterrupted.

In front of the Snow Building about eight months after their ice cream date, Seth presented Jessica a ring of white gold inlaid with diamonds. They were married Sept. 1, 2001, in the Idaho Falls Latter-day Saints Temple.

Jessica was the oldest of five and accustomed to caring for her siblings. Paula Sheen said Jessica always wanted a large family of her own, and when the 8–pound, 11–ounce Seth Alexander Owen was born on March 11, 2003, she was thrilled. They decided to call the child by his middle name. One month after Alexander was born, Jessica earned an associate’s degree in horticulture.

As he pursued a business management degree, Seth worked evenings, taking phone orders for Melaleuca, a company that sells wellness products such as soap, shampoo, vitamins and mineral supplements. Because money was tight, the couple splurged only once to buy a new, wooden crib for Alexander. Seth worked overtime in the evenings to earn extra money for the crib. Second-hand furniture filled the rest of their modest two-bedroom apartment in Rexburg, Idaho. Once a week, the family drove 35 miles to Idaho Falls to visit Seth’s parents, where they used the washer and dryer. As they drove, Seth and Jessica took turns reading aloud to their son.

In the summer, Jessica planted a flower garden in the backyard of Seth’s parents’ home. In the fall the two helped Seth’s parents can, blanch and freeze vegetables. Sometimes the couple left Alexander in his grandparents’ care so they could take walks along the Snake River in an area known as the Green Belt.

On their walks, the couple talked of the future. Seth would graduate, and they would move to Charlotte, N.C., where he would intern with Wachovia Securities, a prominent financial firm. A month before the move, 13-month-old Alexander was able to join his parents on walks along the Snake River. That’s where Alexander began one of his favorite pastimes.

“(Alexander) likes to feed himself and the ducks bread,” said Rick Owen, Seth’s father.

For Wesley Taylor, 48, a commercial trucker for 11 years, miles of roads and scenery have blurred together. While on the road, Taylor passes the time by keeping a vigilant watch for careless drivers. He has seen dozens of accidents, and in December 2002 was recognized by Edwards Brothers Inc. for one million miles of safe driving.

“I always keep an eye on the traffic all around me,” Taylor said.

Except for his road companion, a poodle named Kola, Taylor is alone during the 11-hour days of driving. He calls his wife in Idaho Falls four to five times a day and makes it home once a week. Taylor lives about 10 miles from Seth Owen’s parents in Idaho Falls.

While transporting cheese and potatoes across the country for Edwards Brothers, Taylor rarely cuts through Missouri on I-70. But during the second week of May, he was driving from Mattoon, Ill., to Salt Lake City, Utah.

May 12 began like most days for Taylor. He skipped breakfast and started driving west toward Columbia from Warrenton.

Davis, 42, started driving rigs across the country in July 2003. As a former shortstop and catcher for the Class AA Charlotte Knights in 1983-84, Davis continued to be interested in baseball. While driving, he scans the radio for games, and with control of his driving schedule, he occasionally attends games in cities along the way.

The road that led Davis to Columbia on May 12 began eight years earlier in Charlotte, N.C. Davis, 42, loaded trucks by hand in a stuffy warehouse, and while moving boxes was fast and light, it was boring. Davis thought life might be more interesting on the road.

On May 12, Davis left Days Inn in Columbia and was headed west on I-70.

Shortly before noon, Taylor was driving only a short distance in front of Davis. In moments, the two truckers would witness an accident involving a family traveling from Idaho Falls to Charlotte.

Seth, Jessica and Alexander’s trip began on May 8, a Saturday. After a going-away party, the family left Idaho Falls that afternoon. The family traveled at a leisurely pace for the first two days and visited relatives in Pocatello, Idaho. By Tuesday, the trip for their new home had begun in earnest.

Curious about the couple’s progress, Rick Owen called Seth at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Besides rain and snow in Denver, the trip was “going really well,” Seth said. Ordinarily, Alexander did not enjoy long drives, but surprisingly, “(he) traveled well that day.”

“I love you, Dad,” Seth said before hanging up.

The interstate was slick from light rain that May Wednesday. While driving in the right lane at about noon, Taylor noticed a 2001 Ford truck in the left lane drifting toward his rig. Taylor watched Anderson Williams, 53, try to correct the drift, overcompensate and cross the grass median at about 70 miles per hour. The Ford teetered on two left wheels when it collided head-on with Seth’s 1995 Chrysler.

Taylor watched the Ford flip and the Chrysler shoot off the road 30 feet into a ditch.

“When they hit it was like a dead stop,” Taylor said.

Lavonda Case, 35, from Marshall, was driving east toward Columbia when she ran her car off the road to avoid the two colliding vehicles. She went to the Chrysler and put two fingers on Seth’s neck to check for a pulse. Case had received medical training while working for two health departments during the past 10 years.

Case could not find Seth’s pulse. She went to the passenger side of the car to check on Jessica. Her pulse was weak, and she was unconscious. Her arms were sprawled out on the dash, which was crushing her lower body.

Case heard a small cry from somewhere behind the front seats. Frantic, she swung her elbow against the rear passenger window in an attempt to shatter it but was unable to do so. Case began calling to other motorists for help.

Davis saw the spinning wheels on the flipped Ford and drove his truck to the shoulder of the road. He sprinted toward the Ford and saw a man drag himself through a slit in the crushed cab. Another man remained trapped. With his cheek inches from the asphalt to get a glimpse of the interior of the Ford, Davis realized he would be of little help to the trapped man. Instead, he rushed to the smoldering car.

Davis ran down the embankment toward the Chrysler. He got down on his knees, reached through the passenger window and clasped Jessica’s hands.

“Help my baby,” she said.

With some of her final words, Jessica would save Alexander, but she could not save herself or the couple’s second child. Jessica was four months pregnant.

“It’s gonna be all right,” Davis told her.

Another driver broke the rear window of the Chrysler with a fire extinguisher. Davis climbed inside the car and began digging through its contents, trying to locate Alexander. He pulled out shoe boxes, shirts, pants, stuffed animals and baby clothes. He found Alexander buried and wedged behind the driver’s seat, but the baby was still out of reach. He covered Alexander with a blanket and scrambled out of the car. He would have to find another way to free Alexander.

Beside the road Davis found a three-foot-long two-by-four. One swift swing and the back passenger window shattered. Davis climbed back into the car. He heard heating metal popping and sizzling. His lungs filled with air that smelled of burnt rubber. The edge of the door pressed into his thighs. Seat belts still bound Alexander. With his four-inch pocketknife, Davis cut at the straps.

“Please sir, you got to get that baby,” Case said.

Davis grasped the crying child with both hands.

“I’ve got ’im. I’ve got ’im. I’ve got ’im.”

Davis handed Alexander to Case.

By now, more than a dozen drivers had stopped to help. They tried to pry open the doors of the Chrysler with an eight-foot pipe. They battled the growing flames with chemical fire extinguishers.

“Flames slowly trickled out into the grass,” Taylor said.

Davis succeeded in cutting Jessica’s seat belt, and the passenger door had popped open a little. But the door was keeping rescuers from pulling her out. Even if the door had opened, the dash board and passenger seat had collapsed onto Jessica. Davis could not see below Jessica’s chest.

“She was pinned real good,” Davis said.

For 10 minutes Davis struggled to free Jessica. He pulled on her shoulders but was worried about hurting her. Flames spread from below the car and up the door. The flames burned the hair on Davis’s arms. The heat forced him to pull away. Fire engulfed the wreckage. Rescuers stepped back because they feared an explosion.

“Here I’m holdin’ her baby, and she’s burnin’ to death,” Case said.

Alexander clutched at Case’s shirt and began to cry.

“It was like giving birth,” Case said. “He didn’t wanna let me go, and I didn’t wanna let him go.”

After receiving a call from Brad Agle, a bishop in the Cranberry Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kevin and Paula Sheen left Cranberry Township, Pa., for Columbia at 8 p.m. Wednesday. They drove 736 miles through the night to reach their only grandson at University Hospital. By 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Paula Sheen was holding Alexander.

“He knew something in his life had changed,” she said. “All he wanted to do is be held.”

Alexander had a minor burn on his neck and a red mark on his chest from the straps of the car seat. After the accident, Alexander spoke very little, and it would be three days before he wanted to walk on his own again.

Most of Seth’s and Jessica’s possessions in their car were lost. Of the couple’s instruments, Seth’s oboe was recovered in perfect shape, but only the metal keys remained of Jessica’s clarinet.

Paula and Kevin Sheen left Columbia with Alexander for Idaho Falls where a funeral for Jessica and Seth was held eight days after the accident.

The Sheens left for their home near Pittsburgh two days later. Since the accident, Alexander has been with the Sheens and the Owens. He is now with the Sheens in Pennsylvania. Alexander will continue to split time with both families until they can decide on a permanent home.

“We hope he grows up to know his parents and be the same kind of person his dad was,” Rick Owen said.

Taylor does not think about the accident often, but in mid-June he found himself driving another load of cheese and potatoes through Missouri on I-70.

“When I went by the spot it was eerie,” he said. “(What I remember) replayed a couple of times in my mind.”

Davis still hauls machinery across the country for Edwards Brothers. On occasion, he talks with Paula Sheen on the phone and attempts to answer her questions.

“What were Jessica’s last words?”

“If there had been more time could they have pulled Jessica from the car?”

Davis tells her he remembers Jessica “asking for help” and for him to save Alexander.

As miles of road unfold before him, Davis’s mind wanders. He thinks to himself, “With just a little more time Jessica might have been saved.” But he also thinks of someone else.

“(Alexander) could grow up to be a doctor and someday save my life,” Davis said.

In his pocket, Davis carries the pocketknife he used to free Alexander.

Not an hour passes without Case thinking about the accident, and every time she sees another baby, she thinks of Alexander.

“I’ll remember that face forever,” she said.

For the first time in her life, Case is in counseling, to cope with the tragedy. She still thinks about the accident often, but the memory is less painful.

If Seth, Jessica and Alexander would have completed their trip, they would have moved into First Ward Place, an apartment complex less than three miles away from Davis’s house on Skyland Avenue. The family and the trucker, who unexpectedly met on an interstate in Missouri, would have been neighbors.

Paula Sheen looks at Alexander and sees a little boy who is not amused by ordinary toys but who likes measuring cups. He rifles through pots and pans stored within each other. Alexander uses wooden spoons to pound on the cabinet doors.

“He empties everything,” Paula Sheen said.

She also thinks of his future.

“This little baby will have to live with this tragedy the rest of his life,” Paula Sheen said. “I feel very blessed he made it out of the car alive. I’m just happy he’s here, alive today.”

An education fund for Seth Alexander Owen has been set up with the Bank of Commerce. So far, about $5,000 have been donated. Anyone wishing to contribute to the fund can send donations to : Seth Alexander Education Fund, c/o Bank of Commerce, P.O. Box 1887, Idaho Falls, Idaho, 83403.

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