'I KILLED MY BEST FRIEND'S SISTER' - Airman crashes vehicle while texting and driving

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Beth Anschutz
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Certain memories of the accident are clear in Senior Airman Caleb Zody's mind, but other details are foggy. For instance, he remembers with chilling clarity the feeling of the car skidding and flipping. He can't recall, however, the subject of the text he traded for the life of his best friend's twin sister.

It's been more than three years since Zody, an F-15E Strike Eagle weapons mechanic with the 366th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, crashed his vehicle in the texting and driving mishap near the base. Sept. 16, 2009, the day of the accident, had marked the one-year anniversary of him leaving his home in Glendive, Mont., for the first time on his way to Lackland AFB, Texas, to begin basic training. But with the click of a keypad, one of the best days of his life turned into the worst.

Ironically, he had been doing a favor for his friend and co-worker Airman Jacqlyn Weir with her safety in mind. Her twin sister, Jessica, was flying into town for a visit. But since Weir had worked the nightshift and hadn't slept, Zody offered to drive the Airman to the airport in Boise to pick up her sister. That way she wouldn't risk driving fatigued during the near hour-long trip.

Zody said he and Weir had been close nearly from the first day they met.

"She was a loner, and we just hit it off," he said.

So offering to lend a hand just came naturally.

The trip to the airport went off without a hitch. On the way back as they neared the base, though, things unraveled quickly.

Zody said he was traveling at nearly 80 mph when he lost control of his vehicle.

"Within the last week, I had gotten a new cell phone with a full keyboard," Zody recalls. "I felt that I was behind the times and needed to upgrade."

He said he had managed to text and drive with his old phone without incident. But with his new phone and its unfamiliar keyboard, texting while driving wasn't as easy.

Zody passed mile marker 90 on Highway 84, which is the first exit for Mountain Home. He said he would have normally taken this exit, but the three had plans to drive through town before heading to base. So, Zody decided to take the next exit.

"My memory is foggy, but I do remember that I was on the phone texting and [steering] with my knee," he said.

Traveling in the left-hand lane of the four-lane highway, Zody's car drifted toward a grassy median separating the east and westbound lanes.

"I'm not sure if I didn't notice the car drifting or if my knee had slipped," Zody said. "Jacqlyn saw I wasn't paying attention and grabbed the wheel from the passenger seat, trying to straighten the vehicle."

Zody said that was when the car shot across the lane into the right shoulder.

"I still remember the feeling of the car skidding and flipping," he said. "The traction ... the fight against the turn ... and then nothing."

The car flipped three times. Although Zody says he asked both girls to put on their seat belts, Jessica wasn't wearing hers and was thrown from the vehicle. Emergency response personnel found her close to 100 feet from the crumpled car.

"I was trapped in the car in absolute hysterics," he said. "I was sobbing and screaming, 'I'm so sorry! I swear I didn't mean to do this! I'm so sorry!' My friend, I don't know how, while physically being able to see her twin sister laying there by the side of the road in the horrible shape she was in, reached out and grabbed my hand and said, 'I know you didn't mean for this to happen. We are going to get through this.' To this day, I still don't know how she found enough strength to be able to do that."

A rescue team had to cut Zody out of his car. He and Jessica were airlifted to a hospital in Boise. Emergency responders managed to stabilize Zody on the flight. Jessica, however, needed life support. She succumbed to her injuries the next day.

"When they told me that she had died, it didn't really register at first," Zody said. "That's not something you can accept and move on from quickly."

"Jessica's family has to live the rest of their lives with this," he said. "I took their daughter; I took [Jacqlyn's] sister. Because of my decisions, she's not here."

Zody remained in the hospital for two days. He had 4 inches of muscle stitched together and sewn back into his arm and multiple stitches and staples put into his head. He learned after the accident that the medics on the scene had given him a 15 percent chance to live.

As his physical injuries healed, his mental wounds grew deeper. He suffered from depression and struggled with the consequences of his actions.

Through the support of his family and friends, Zody slowly got better in the months after the accident. He attributes his faith in God as the one constant that got him through the toughest times.

"Without faith, I wouldn't have survived," he said.

In December 2009, Zody was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. But because Jacqlyn testified that she had grabbed the steering wheel, Zody was spared a long jail sentence. He accepted a plea bargain of reckless driving and was sentenced to five days in jail and 150 hours of community service.

Zody fulfilled his community service by speaking to groups about his accident and the dangers of texting and driving. His first briefing was in front of his leadership and peers at a 366th Aircraft Maintenance Group commander's call.

"It was my most difficult briefing because I knew everyone in the audience," he said. "Everyone knew me ... and everyone knew Jacqlyn."

Even though he has completed his community service commitment, Zody plans to keep speaking out about the accident. He believes the more people who hear his story, the greater the chances are that lives won't be lost to texting and driving.

"I hope everyone who hears my story will think about it next time they get behind the wheel," he said. "I don't want anyone else to go through what I've gone through. More importantly, I don't want anyone to go through what Jessica's family has gone through."

Changing the mindset of those who text and drive will not be an easy feat, considering the National Safety Council's statistic that texting and driving has been linked to more than 100,000 vehicle crashes each year. According to a study by Car and Driver magazine, sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for nearly five seconds; and while traveling 55 mph, this can equate to driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.

"There's a reason the safety community is calling texting and driving the new drunk driving ... it's a nationwide concern," said Dave Etrheim, Air Education and Training Command Ground Safety Division. "One of the most dangerous things a person can do is drive ... and that's in the best of circumstances. Why would you add to the danger by creating a distraction so severe it's like wearing a blindfold?"

Zody learned this lesson the hard way.

"When we get behind the wheel of a car, we automatically take responsibility for the lives and safety of our passengers," he said. "That means no distractions, no multi-tasking. If we choose to put ourselves before the safety of others, we fail. There is no excuse for treating life so casually."