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A Date With Destiny on the Mountain

After car plunges over a cliff, a Colorado teen ignores her own pain to save her cousin's children. Was that the reason she survived?

March 09, 2003|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press Writer

WOLF CREEK, Colo. — The car hurtled through the air and into the moonlit night, soaring over the mountain ridge, high above the ravine.

For a moment, it seemed suspended in air. Then the white Ford LTD plunged down the mountain, crashing from boulder to boulder, tossed about like a battered tin can as it was swallowed by the rocks and the snow and the dark.

Inside, three children screamed in terror. Their mother gripped the wheel.

In the front passenger seat, Roxanna Vega clutched the little boy in one hand and her puppy in the other.

She doesn't remember crying out. She doesn't remember fear. She just remembers the sickening screech of metal against rock, and one overwhelming sensation as she clung to the child: that at 16 she wasn't ready to die. Not now. Not on this remote mountain pass, not without doing everything in her power to save these children and herself.

Roxanna tried to shield the boy as the car crashed to a halt, but she lost her grip. Glass and ice and rocks shattered all around.

Then everything went black.

*

"Roxy, wake up. Roxy, I'm scared."

Roxanna blinked, trying to adjust to the dark, the cold, the sticky mess of blood on her face and the pains shooting through her back and legs and arm. She had no idea where she was or how long she had been lying there.

Four-year-old Christopher was crying, tugging her jacket, stumbling around in the snow.

"Pick me up, Roxy," he wailed. "I'm cold. I don't have any shoes."

It took a moment to remember the crash. It took a moment to remember her horror as she realized what was happening seconds before they went over the edge. And it took every ounce of strength not to simply close her eyes and lie in the snow and forget everything.

Later, doctors would marvel that she didn't simply die then. Her injuries were massive: broken back, broken left ankle and broken left arm.

Christopher's cries kept her from drifting off.

"Don't cry, Tofer," she whispered. "It's OK. Roxy's here."

The moon cast a dusky glow against the snow, and she could vaguely make out shapes, the vast silhouette of the mountain above, dark clumps of trees and rocks, the hulk of the crashed car a few feet away.

It was sunk in the snow, half tilted onto the passenger side, but still upright. The front was crushed. All the windows, with the exception of the rear, had been blown out. Inside, Roxanna could hear 8-year-old Carlos whimpering and 3-year-old Kayla crying.

Thank God, she thought. At least they're alive.

About 15 feet from the car, she could make out another silhouette, of a huge boulder and of someone pinned underneath. She heard a soft moaning.

"Ally!" Roxanna cried, stumbling toward the sound.

"Ally!"

Desperately, Roxanna tried to push the boulder, but it wouldn't budge. She reached for Alison's hands, but her cousin screamed in agony, pushing her away.

Roxanna didn't have time to say goodbye or even pause to pray.

She had to focus on the children. They mustn't see their mom like this, she thought, groping her way back to the car.

Christopher was still sobbing, so she picked him up and bundled him into the front seat, fishing a blanket from the back and wrapping it around him. Kayla had grown silent. Carlos was whimpering.

"I'm down here, Roxy," he said, his voice shaking, his brown eyes staring from under the crushed steering wheel. "My feet are stuck."

Kayla was lying almost on top of him, in her yellow turtleneck and pink pants, face pressed into the dashboard. She didn't seem to be moving.

"Why did Mommy do it?" Carlos asked.

"I don't know," was all Roxanna could say.

"How will we get out of here?" Carlos asked.

"I don't know, Bubba; Roxy will find a way."

But she wondered, how could they ever survive the night in this wilderness, this cold?

*

It had started as the first big adventure of the New Year, a couple of days away with the kids, an escape of sorts -- Alison Mitchell from problems in her marriage, Roxanna from the stifling smallness of her hometown.

Despite an 11-year difference in age, the two were more like sisters than cousins, constantly back and forth to each other's houses although they lived 55 miles apart, Alison in the city of Alamosa and Roxanna in the hamlet of Saguache.

They spent summers together and holidays. Alison, 27, blond and down-to-earth, ever the doting mom. Roxanna the tongue-pierced rebel, with her jet-black hair, dark expressive eyes, and her brooding poems about life and love.

Roxanna confided in Alison about boyfriends and school. Alison confided in Roxanna about strains in her marriage -- problems over money, the stress of juggling her job as a Head Start teacher and three small children, the depression that led her to take medication and seek counseling.

And so, after a fight with her husband, Chad, on New Year's Eve, it was natural that Alison called Roxanna. And when Alison decided to take off for a few days to visit a friend across the mountains in New Mexico, it was natural that Roxanna go too.

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