Photo courtesy of King County Department of Natural Resources & Parks
We know the outlines of this horrific incident: Maria Federici is driving home after work; around midnight on I-405, a 6-foot board flies through the windshield of her Jeep and into her face. Despite desperate surgery performed in the Harborview emergency room, the 24-year-old is nevertheless believed to have “non-survivable” injuries, and she is placed on life support to keep her vital organs ready for donation.
How in the world could this Feb. 22, 2004 tragedy develop what her mother, Robin Abel, now calls "a happy ending?"
First of all, a mother's love. And, it turns out, the generosity and courage of dozens of ordinary people; the expertise of emergency responders, Seattle physicians and other health care professionals; and the influence of compassionate men and women in high places.
The powerful story of that journey is told in excruciating detail in Out of Nowhere, the book Abel and Ballard freelance writer Peggy Sturdivant launched June 9 during a well-attended release party at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle.
This book carries a reader — often moment by moment — into the lives of people dealing with immense crisis. No matter how much we have read and seen about what happened to Maria Federici, this intimate and candid account helps us grasp the back story: What people really face in a life-threatening emergency, what it’s like walking a tightrope 24/7 for three months in a hospital, and then battling to keep hope alive through the long, long years of recovery.
Abel and Sturdivant have built this book on specifics, the result of Sturdivant reading and understanding stacks of reports, medical charts and records, legal documents, and transcripts. Add Abel's notes and profound memories, the cards and e-mails she received, and the research takes us to I-405, into the ambulance, then Harborview’s emergency room, the "quiet room" where the staff tells next of kin the bad news, ICU, the hallways, and operating rooms. We are with the Washington State Patrol investigation, in the rehab center, and inside the home on Lake Kathleen near Renton where Federici moves when her treatments are mainly finished.
We know about Federici while she is tenaciously getting better and feeling frustrated, determined, willful, angry, confident, witty, happy. Even more, though, we are with the one person focused all day every day on what's best now and in the future: Federici’s chief advocate, case manager and protector, Robin Abel. Abel has worked for her daughter continuously from the moment she learned the next morning that Federici might live, and we are with her just about every step.
But Abel's endurance and success have depended on scores of others — especially the 80-some people Sturdivant interviewed for this chronicle. Those individuals' experiences in the first month after the accident and over the next six years weave a tale that is deep and broad — and evidence that one person can make all the difference.
We meet, for instance, Anthony Cox and Jean Gamboa, the two witnesses who stopped to help and together probably saved Federici's life; Inge Velde, who called WSP when she realized the possible significance of what she had seen half a mile south of the accident scene; and Nathan Elias, the WSP chief investigating detective whose extra effort led to our knowing that the board that hit Federici came from an entertainment center, which had fallen off an open trailer pulled by a Dodge Ram.
Out of Nowhere proves that tragedy brings out the best in us.
Some of this book is unavoidably difficult to read. But we can absorb the agony in the early chapters because there’s a lot of book still to come. Abel advises in an interview, "You may cry when you read my book, but remember it has a happy ending."
We dangle from a cliff while Federici fights to stay alive and her family rotates sitting at her side and friends and strangers put on benefits to help pay the bills. But the story-telling is just as compelling as this narrative moves on to what Abel did as Federici's condition stabilized.
Within weeks of the accident, Abel knew that her daughter survived for a purpose. The reason was, Abel says, "To share this story to get people to change their behavior."
The behavior in question is securing loads being carried on roadways. Abel learned from the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng that driving with an unsecure load was not a crime in Washington; people hurt by falling loads were not eligible for crime victims' funds. When Maleng and his staff explained there wasn't evidence to charge the driver with more than traffic violations, Abel responded, "We need to change the law."
Maleng wrote the white paper and the language for a proposed law. State Rep. Ruth Kagi was the prime sponsor, and Abel and Federici testified in Olympia. When Gov. Chris Gregoire signed "Maria's Law," she gave Abel the pen. It is now a gross misdemeanor if something from an unsecured load causes bodily injury; the penalties can be $5,000 and time in jail.
With an amendment passed in 2006, people injured by unsecured loads and road debris are eligible for Washington State Crime Victims Compensation funds. With Gregoire's help, Abel is working to extend those protections across the country.
The law was too late to protect Federici. But Abel says she is going to keep pushing drivers to "secure your load like everyone you love is in the car behind you."
Abel's remaining mission was to make sure Federici would have enough money to pay for the medical care she will need in the future. The book walks us through the preparations for a lawsuit against U-Haul, defines all the terms and procedures, and takes us behind the scenes and inside the King County Superior Court.
The jury found for the plaintiff in 2007 and awarded Federici $15.5 million. In mediation afterward, the amount came down, but Abel settled for enough for her daughter’s long-term care.
So the law she spearheaded and Federici's financial security are probably part of what Abel insists is her book's “happy ending.” But mainly, Abel is talking about Federici being "not a victim, but a survivor." Federici cannot see or taste or smell, but she is living independently and is, Abel says, "an amazing young lady."
Out of Nowhere is available on Abel's website: www.outofnowherethebook.com.
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