SUNDAY EDITION | Three children run over by SUV at JCPS bus stop making 'miracle' recovery
The scene was chaotic: an SUV had swerved to avoid a JCPS bus and slammed into a group of three young children waiting on the sidewalk. Two months later, their road to recovery has been nothing short of amazing.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The scene was chaotic: an SUV had swerved to avoid a Jefferson County Public Schools bus just past the intersection of 32nd Street and Dumensil, slamming into a group of three young children waiting on the sidewalk.
Louisville Metro Police Officer Christopher Dudley was among the first to arrive shortly after 8 a.m. on Oct. 20, his heart dropping as he saw one child trapped under the Cadillac Escalade and several others crying nearby.
“The first thing any of us thought when we showed up is who can be saved,” says Dudley, who was about a half mile away when the call came out. “We saw the little girl and we immediately got down and started to get the vehicle off of her."
The little girl – nine-year-old Vanessa Levros – was unresponsive. Her 10-year-old brother, Jaconiah “Joc” Fields, and another boy, eight-year-old Phillip Neal III, had broken bones, concussions and other internal injuries.
Firefighters and paramedics worked to stabilize Phillip and Joc, but after the team of first responders and neighbors worked to lift the SUV off of Vanessa, they realized how grave her condition was.
“I don't think any of us that really worked on her really thought she was going to make it,” recalled David Borders, a Louisville EMS paramedic. “She was not responding to us at all, she wasn't breathing very well. It was bad."
But two months later, the families of the three children and those who helped them are able to re-live the moments of that terrible day and look forward. Despite the emotional and physical scars, Phillip, Joc and Vanessa are expected to be OK.
The two boys have returned to classes at Engelhard and Dixie elementary schools. Vanessa was released from Norton Children’s Hospital two weeks ago and sent last week to Frazier Rehab Center. Doctors have told the family the plan is for her to go home this week, just in time for Christmas.
“It’s the best Christmas present we could have asked for,” Dudley said. “Months later, for them to still be going, they're some of the strongest kids I've ever seen.”
Lakeisha Johnson, the mother of Vanessa and Joc, said that while the past several weeks have been nothing short of a nightmare, she has so much to be thankful for this holiday season.
“I can’t even begin to tell you,” Johnson, who has three other children, said with tears in her eyes. “As long as I have my kids...and they are alive and healthy and still loving and kissing on mommy, I will figure out everything else.”
Schmicka and Phillip Neal Jr. are familiar with that feeling. It wasn’t just their youngest child at the bus stop that day. Their oldest, 10-year-old Mikayla, was with him and had jumped out of the way.
“That whole day was a miracle,” said Phillip Neal Jr. “From start to finish; everything about these past two months (have been) a miracle.”
‘I heard tires screeching…and then we got hit’
By all accounts, it had been a typical Thursday morning for the two families.
Mikayla and Phillip ate breakfast, got dressed and kissed their parents goodbye before leaving the house at about 7:45 a.m. to walk to the bus stop.
“We hug them, kiss them goodbye, and they wave,” Phillip Neal Jr. said of his family’s morning routine. “And then they walk down the street, and we see them usually get on the bus. We saw the bus coming up the street, so we got into the truck and pulled off."
Three blocks away, Joc and Vanessa left their home at about 7:50 a.m.
Johnson, who was already at work, had called to check on them. She wasn’t allowed to have her phone on the floor with her at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, but that morning she had a short break and felt the need to call.
“Mom had called us to tell us to make sure we had a good day and (to make sure) that we had went to the bus stop,“ Joc recalled. “Maybe three or four minutes after we got to the bus stop, I heard tires screeching and I turn around, and then we got hit."
“I remember flying through the air, landing,” he said. “And then when I got up, I was able to kind of walk over to where everyone was before I fell. Then I heard sirens, people crying...people on phones.”
Joc, who suffered a broken leg, saw his sister lying underneath the SUV.
“I saw the car coming but it was too late, I couldn't do anything,” he said.
Mikayla Neal was standing next to her little brother and was knocked to the ground.
“My shoe fell off,” she said. “I got up, and I didn't see Phillip. And I thought he was lost but he wasn't.”
Unharmed, she ran home to get her parents, but found that her dad had already left to take her mom to work.
“It was bad,” she said, recalling when she finally saw her brother at the hospital. He had suffered from a broken left femur, a bruised lung and pancreas, and a concussion.
“When he woke up, he said, “Kay Kay, where was you?’” she said, with tears in her eyes. “It was hard. Me and him, we will take up for each other, like we did when we was little."
While taking his wife to work, Phillip Neal Jr. said he got a call from a number he didn’t recognize.
“This lady said she can't find my son, there's been a terrible accident and you need to get here,” he said. “We flew back to the house."
When they got there, “it was just a scene of tragedy,” he said.
“Cops everywhere, news reporters everywhere…it was just crazy,” he said. “When we got to the hospital we still couldn't see him for 30 minutes. That was the most torture right there…that 30 minutes felt like 30 months."
Meanwhile, Johnson’s phone was ringing off the hook.
“Something told me to grab my phone out of my lunch bag…and I saw I had a gazillion missed calls,” she said. “I immediately called my sister back. She said you need to get to the hospital now, that the kids have been hit by a car. I'm like, what?! That's not possible, they are responsible, they don't run or play in the street...how did my kids get hit by a car?”
Within a second, Johnson said she rushed out of work and headed to Norton Children’s Hospital.
Back at the crash scene, paramedics had loaded the children into ambulances. For nearly five miles, police officers blocked off streets and escorted them down West Broadway, through downtown and to the hospital.
Borders, the paramedic, described it as “controlled chaos” but said every first responder who helped that day played an important role.
“An outsider looking in, it looks chaotic,” he said. “It's actually controlled. Everybody has a role, everybody knows what their role is.”
‘I didn't know if she was going to make it’
Johnson arrived at the hospital and nurses told her Joc was stable, but that her daughter was being rushed to surgery.
“I saw my baby and I just melted,” Johnson recalled. “She had black eyes, blood coming out of her nose, and her ears, and her mouth, scratches all over her face. She had a neck brace on, she's not awake…it was hard seeing that.”
Johnson had two minutes with her daughter before she was whisked away.
“That was just hard, cause I didn't know, I didn't know what was to come,” she said. “All I knew was I had two minutes with my baby. I didn't know if she was going to make it or not."
Just down the hallway, Neal said his son was “heavily sedated.”
“He had a neck brace on and was just laying there,” Neal said. “He was coming back, he would see us and a tear would come down and he'd doze back off."
In the recovery room after the doctors had inserted a rod in his left leg, the little boy woke up and smiled.
“That's when we got ‘Phil Phil’ back…that smile right there,” Neal said of his son, as he and Mikayla sat nearby in an Engelhard Elementary School classroom during an interview with WDRB last week.
Vanessa had a broken jaw and nose, a cut on her ear and scars on her face. Doctors placed a tube in her windpipe to help her breathe. Her jaw was wired shut. She would remain in a medically-induced coma for nearly a month.
For weeks, Johnson would sit with her daughter, while also trying to be there for her four other young children. She had to leave her full-time job, because of the time off she was going to need to take care of Vanessa.
“I had to be there with her and I had not been there long enough for them to grant me a leave of absence,” Johnson said. “So they let me go, but I hope I’ll be able to go back as soon as possible.”
Joc was able to return to school on Nov. 1, but Vanessa faces a much longer recovery. Even if she’s released from Frazier Rehab this week, she will have a nurse visit daily to help.
“She still has PICC line in, they just took her tracheotomy out. She will still have to have antibiotics,” Johnson said. “She still has to see an eye doctor and an orthodontist.”
Vanessa and Phillip have no memory of the accident, which their parents say has been a blessing.
But Joc and Mikayla remember that day vividly and say they both suffer from nightmares and guilt.
“I wish I could have done more to protect her,” Joc said.
Mikayla added: “Sometimes it’s hard to go to sleep at night.”
A message of forgiveness
Johnson said when she has a moment of weakness, she thinks about one of the first things Vanessa did once she came out of the coma.
“The very first thing I remember....she was still in ICU and her jaw was wired shut, but I'm talking to her, I was trying to get her to write, I wanted to keep stimulating her…the very first thing she asked was, ‘what happened to me?' She was confused, she didn't understand.”
Johnson explained what happened and told Vanessa that people make mistakes and that the man who hit her that day made a “terrible mistake.”
“She got real sad for a minute and I held her,” Johnson said. “I asked her to do me a favor...I asked her to write something on forgiveness. I left the room for a little bit and she wrote a paper on forgiveness.”
Johnson came back to the room to a hand-written page-long message. It reads, in part:
“You don’t earn forgiveness, you have to get forgiveness. It’s not that person just isn’t a good person…me and my brother were in an accident and I was the worst but I still give forgiveness to (the man) who hit me and my brother.”
Through tears, Johnson said her daughter’s message “really touched my heart.”
“At 9 years old, after everything she has gone through...that she can understand and say 'I forgive you', We all need to be like that,” Johnson said.
When WDRB asked the little girl what forgiveness was, she softly replied: “Forgiving somebody for doing something wrong.”
Overwhelmed with support
The driver of the SUV – Christopher James Johnson – told police he swerved around the bus and onto the sidewalk to avoid hitting it, the vehicle ending up on the front lawn of a neighboring house. Police have charged the 36-year-old man, who is not related to Lakeisha Johnson, with not having proof of insurance or vehicle registration.
Records obtained by WDRB show that Christopher Johnson has been charged in the past with the same infractions, including failure to maintain insurance a half dozen times since 2010.
The families say the crash has placed a huge financial burden on them. Even with some insurance, they say the medical bills covering the hospital care, physical therapy and prescriptions have been steep.
When asked if she is going to be OK financially, Johnson quickly responded: “I have no choice. I have no choice. I have kids so I have to figure it out.”
Neal said his family is “doing the best we can.”
Shortly after the accident, two GoFundMe accounts were set up to help the families. Thousands of dollars have been donated to funds:
Neal and Johnson said they have been overwhelmed with the support of the community.
“It’s a very warm feeling…when something happens the community does pull through,” Johnson said. “Everything is not all bad, there is a whole lot of good.”
During their interviews, both families told WDRB they wanted to thank the first responders who were on Oct. 20. Last week, WDRB arranged a reunion.
“Oh snap!” Neal said as he turned the corner on 32nd and Dumensil and was saw the group of about a dozen police officers and paramedics who had gathered to meet him.
“I've been wanting to meet all of them, but I didn't know how to take the right steps,” he said. “I appreciate all you guys, my son's alive right now because of you. I'm in debt. I can't cry no more because all my tears are gone."
In the lobby of Frazier Rehab, Johnson was reunited with the dispatcher who answered the first 911 call that day.
“Oh my goodness!” she said, standing up to greet Randi Boren with tears in her eyes. “I want to give you a hug! I’m glad you guys came, I really am.”
Boren, who’s been an emergency dispatcher for 10 years, said it’s not often she gets to see what happens after she takes a call.
“I'm so happy to see you, it's very rare that we get to know what happens afterwards,” Boren said. “If this was the only thing I did in my 10 years, it was worth it."
Looking forward to Christmas
Both families say now that the crash is behind them, they are looking forward to Christmas next week.
When asked what they want for Christmas, Vanessa and Joc don’t mention any gifts -- but the little girl said she’s been craving her mother’s cooking.
Joc said: “Nessa is coming home and forgetting about this accident.”
“We have this thing, we gather around the Christmas tree, open presents and we tell each other what we are thankful for,” he said. “We have a very big Christmas dinner.”
Phillip Neal Jr. said they have so much to be thankful for this year.
“Life isn’t a guarantee,” he said with tears in his eyes. “Cherish every hug, every moment.”
Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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