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THE NATION

On the Road to Recovery After a Senseless Act

A boulder plummets from a Virginia overpass, hitting a newlywed riding in car. Months later, she harbors no bitterness about the ordeal.

March 21, 2004|Ben Dobbin | Associated Press Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It was a 70-pound boulder with jagged edges. Dropped off an overpass onto Interstate 95 in rural Virginia, it tore through the windshield and roof of a newlywed couple's car and came to rest on the back seat.

Brian Gipson felt the car shudder violently as cold night air whooshed in. Thinking that he'd hit a deer or possibly another car with its lights off, he kept his eyes fixed on the road, screaming, "Daphne, are you OK?" as he drew down to a swift stop from 65 miles an hour.

There was no response.

His wife of eight days lay unconscious in the collapsed passenger seat, the middle of her face split open, her eyes bulging from their sockets. During the frenzied wait for help, Gipson pressed a towel against her face to stem the gushing blood.

It would be hours before he learned what had happened. He never noticed the 3-foot-long rock resting in the seat behind him, a hand-guided missile that left Daphne on the brink of death for more than two weeks. Nine months later, they still don't know who attacked them, or why.

"They're going to find out, and whatever happens, happens," said Daphne Gipson, 31, who is buoyant, full of laughter and, despite her ordeal, exhibits no bitterness. "Everything used to get to me but, after a while, I just got over it. I'm here, I'm living it, I'm happy."

Her husband, sitting next to her in their modest townhouse, finds it harder to fathom.

"God will deal with them," he said. "We're raised where you're supposed to forgive, but that would be very tough for me to do knowing what they put my wife through."

Police suspect that this was a teen prank gone wrong, but doubts persist -- especially considering the size of the granite boulder and how it appeared to have been hauled some distance to an unlit bridge in wooded Spotsylvania County.

Setting off from Florida on the morning of June 7 after a Disney World honeymoon, the Gipsons paused to pray for a safe trip home. About midnight -- they were on the verge of switching seats for the all-night drive -- their lives abruptly changed.

Paramedics didn't expect Gipson's wife to survive. Nearly every bone in her face was broken, and the severity of her brain injury was unknown. When her kidneys and lungs started to fail and a doctor laid out a bleak prognosis, her mother, Wanda Dudley, cut him off.

"I realize that you're doing your job but I'm expecting a miracle," she said.

Kept in a medically induced coma, Daphne Gipson stabilized during the third week and underwent the first of several reconstructive surgeries. She began to respond to commands, using sign language that she'd learned as a teacher's aide working with disabled children.

Strong enough after two months in Fairfax, Va., to be transferred to a hospital near her Rochester home, she kept to an arduous routine of physical and cognitive therapy, the kind tailored for stroke victims. Gradually, she learned to walk again and perform the simplest physical tasks.

Surgeons wanted to remove her blinded right eye, but her husband wouldn't give permission, and she has since recovered some peripheral vision. Another facial surgery is scheduled this month -- her nose remains askew and her right eye almost shut.

Although her mind seems as sharp as before, her memory is still healing. At first she remembered nothing about her wedding or honeymoon, but snatches of those days are coming back. The accident itself remains a blank.

For her husband, every painful detail is embedded. Whoever did it likely "didn't have the common sense" to realize that their actions might have lethal consequences, Gipson said. Yet he can't help wondering if "maybe it was some sick person that was just drunk or had nothing else better to do with their time."

Each year, American roads generate about 43,000 traffic deaths, and one or two dozen of them are triggered by a "thrown or falling object," federal statistics show. Vandal fences have been erected across many urban bridges with highways running beneath them, but the extra protection is less common in rural regions.

The Virginia state police still have an agent assigned full-time to the Gipson case. Sgt. Gary Settle suspects that young people, possibly celebrating the end of the school year, are to blame.

A resident in a nearby housing development reported rocks missing from her yard but the tip led nowhere. A school about half a mile from the bridge let out for the summer that week before police could question students.

The school "was a point of interest, but we certainly aren't going into this with blinders on, targeting one group or an individual or age group," Settle said.

"If there was more than one person," Gipson said, "somebody else has to know and come forward. But so much time has gone by, it's just ridiculous."

At her surprise birthday party in February, a lavish affair with 250 guests, one of her two sisters whispered, "You know what, she's the old Daphne!"

"From a scale of 1 to 100, Daphne is 95 to me," her mother agreed. "She's still got her old spirits."

Behind her are bouts of depression, worries about her appearance and 24-hour supervision. On one of her daily walks, her husband even egged her into running a short distance. Just as stubbornness was seen as critical to her survival, her impatience signals progress.

"Believe it or not, I can't wait to drive again," she said. "Even though I have a lot of people come and get me, I just can't wait to do it myself."

Volunteering a few hours at a job might come next, then perhaps a return to the classroom.

"I just want things to be more positive, and always happy," she said, glancing at her husband. "Everybody's always asking me, 'Why are you so happy?' Because I've got reasons to be."

She recently joined the church choir, and her voice is one of the sweetest in the sanctuary. Her mother calls her Miracle.

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