Family's life changed 10 years ago today

Leslie Huber keeps a box of mementos from Aug. 18, 2002. Prescription bottles, hospital bracelets, newspaper clippings and a VHS tape. The jacket she was wearing that still bears the Michelin imprint from a car’s tire. Her 2-yearold daughter Alyssa’s jacket, a garage sale find with the teddy bears scattered across it.

I remember that jacket. Alyssa was wearing it the day I met her, the day an EMT handed her to me in the chaos of Aug. 18, 2002.

Minutes before our paths crossed — Alyssa’s and mine — she was sitting comfortably in her mother’s lap at the Motorsport Mile in Hastings. The Hubers of Sutton had eaten lunch at Amigo’s and decided to check out the race they heard was going on downtown.

They picked the spot under the Theis Service Center awning at Third Street and Denver Avenue.

“We thought: There’s an opening there, we can see what’s going on,” Leslie remembered. She was sitting on a low, portable chair with Alyssa perched on her lap. Her husband, Jeff, was watching the clock that gauged the drivers’ speed. Leslie, meanwhile, had her eyes on the approaching cars racing around the nearby corner. Just minutes after they arrived, Leslie realized something was not quite right with the way a silver Pontiac Trans Am was moving toward them.

“The Lord was with us,” she said, recalling how her first reaction was to stand and turn away from the car that was speeding toward her and Alyssa.

“If I had not been paying attention, as low as that car was, I don’t know if she would be here, to be honest,” said Leslie, now 37. The Pontiac veered into the crowd. Leslie felt the tires run over her feet, and suddenly she was on the ground, Alyssa no longer in sight.

Her first thought — I’m alive — was followed by a million questions.

Where was Alyssa? She had just been there, and now she wasn’t. Where was Jeff? Was he OK? Where was their friend, Aaron, who had been standing nearby?

While Leslie was lying on the concrete, I was running as fast as I could in her direction. A spectator at the event, I was a block away when I heard the screams and the crash.

When I arrived I started taking photos, thinking of my job as a newspaper editor. Bodies were strewn across the parking lot of the gas station. Victims groaned in pain. Emergency workers were calling for help on their radios.

I wanted to do something. I talked to both Jeff and Leslie, who couldn’t see each other, to let each know the other was OK. Alyssa was OK, too. She was being carried by an EMT.

The EMT knew me and asked me to hold Alyssa so he could tend to victims in worse condition. I picked up the little girl. She had cuts to her face and blood running down her nose, but her injuries were not severe. And for a few moments, I talked with the little blond girl in the teddy bear-print jacket.

“It’s gonna be OK,” I said. “Your mommy and daddy are just fine.” In a way it was true; in a way it was not. Both Leslie and Jeff had severe injuries that would take a long time to heal — injuries with which they still struggle.

Another EMT arrived and took the toddler. And one by one, all of the victims were placed into ambulances and taken to the hospital. Alyssa and her mom were released the next day, but Jeff’s injuries to his pelvis, leg, arm and back required a 12-day stay in the hospital.

While he was there, Alyssa drew pictures for her dad. He would look at them at night when it was quiet in the hospital, and he’d cry thinking about how close a call it was. Too close.

“I guess that’s the hardest part is knowing we could have lost one or all of us,” Leslie said. It makes her cry, too, even now, 10 years later.

But they don’t consider themselves lucky. They consider themselves blessed — spared by the hand of God. Spared to share a wonderful life with Alyssa, 12, and Tanner, 9, on their farm outside Sutton. Spared to watch Alyssa get braces and do crafts and make clothes for the county fair; to watch Tanner shoot BB guns and ride a four-wheeler; to watch them both wrap their scooters in colorful duct tape as they did this week.

There’s a reason Leslie has placed the mementos of that day in a box for safekeeping. They are more than jackets and hospital bands. They are reminders that in a split second, on an August day on a downtown Hastings street, she almost lost it all. But by the grace of God, all her real treasures are alive and well. And she can’t help but be thankful.

Amy Palser

Amy Palser writes personal stories readers can relate to: tales of family and friends, of childhood and rites of passage, of fantastic people and ordinary things. Her column appears each Saturday. She is the Tribune's managing editor.

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