Real-life stories

link to U.S. DOT's 'Faces of Distracted Driving'

Shattered lives

Watch the video of Maliki and Alex.

video of the Maliki and Alex

The weeping old man steadied himself on the casket containing the battered little bodies of his two great-grandsons. Several of their favorite toys surrounded the boys on the satin-covered cushions. "No one should have to bury babies," said the boys' grandmother, Julia Herold. "That was only the second time I had ever seen my father cry. The other time was when we buried my mother."

Alex Todd
Just days earlier, the boys, Maliki, 5, and Alex, 4, and their mother, Nina Todd, were driving back to their home near Cumberland after a Thanksgiving holiday visit to Julia's Shenandoah home. It was Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010, at 5:41 p.m. The family was traveling northbound on Iowa 48 just south of Red Oak when Nina saw a vehicle coming straight at her over the crest of the hill. There was no time to react.

Following the impact, Nina was pinned in the driver's seat by the car's engine. She could only watch helplessly as her sons slipped into lifelessness strapped into their car seats in the back seat. She was conscious through the entire ordeal. She watched as rescuers covered her babies with sheets. Nina was extracted from the vehicle and flown to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. A nurse from that facility notified Julia of her daughter's crash.

Maliki Todd

Julia said, "When the nurse called I just kept screaming at her to tell me what had happened to the boys what had happened to the babies? But she couldn't tell me anything. I was frantic. I had worked in the medical field in the past and that part of me kicked in. I thought if the boys were dead they would have been taken to the nearest hospital in Red Oak. I had to decide whether to go to Omaha and be with my daughter or try to find my grandsons. No one should have to make that choice. My nephew, who is a firefighter in Shenandoah, heard about the crash on his scanner and had come to the house. He convinced me I needed to get to Nina and told me he would take me to Omaha. I called my sister and brother-in-law. The two of them, along with their 18-year-old son, went to find the boys. They had to identify the bodies. Our nightmare was just beginning."

The other vehicle in the crash, according to the law enforcement investigation, was traveling 74 mph in a 55 mph zone and attempting to pass two vehicles in a "no passing" zone. The investigation also found that the driver, 18-year-old Karli Brown, sent a text at 5:40 p.m., just one minute before the crash.

Alex's carseat, split from the crash
In November 2011, Brown was convicted of two counts of motor vehicle homicide. She was sentenced to two concurrent 10-year prison sentences. She was ordered to pay $150,000 to the estate of each child. According to Julia, Brown is planning to appeal the conviction. If the conviction stands, it is not likely Brown will serve the entire 10-year sentence.

The horror of losing the boys because of a distracted driver has shattered so many lives. Nina Todd, who was Nina McNeese at the time of the crash, has since been divorced from the boys' stepfather. She suffered significant injuries and is still unable to return to work at Hy-Vee in Atlantic. She has a permanent address at her mother's home, but it is difficult for her to stay in the house where there are so many memories of her sons. Julia says, "Nina is haunted by the fact she was unable to protect her babies. She had to say goodbye to them in the morgue. She couldn't go to the funeral because of her injuries. I had to make all the arrangements. Now, she stays wherever she can find a place. Most of the time, it is just too difficult for her to come home. She can't work. We have all suffered so much through this. Sometimes when I'm driving I feel like pulling into the path of a semi, but I stop myself because I couldn't do that to the family of the driver."

Julia emphasizes that the community has been very supportive and life does go on, but it is never the same. She said, "My husband and I both work at Pella in Shenandoah. They were so good to us and gave us the time off we needed after the crash. It was just so hard to go back because I couldn't find a way to adequately thank everyone for their kindness."

The two vehicles involved in the crash

To assist in the healing process, Julia is speaking out against distracted drivers. She and another southwest Iowa woman, whose sister died when hit by a texting driver, have formed a group they call Raising Awareness Involving Distracted Driving (RAIDD) and have begun speaking at local high schools. Nina joins them when she is able.

A handwritten statement Nina reads to schools says, "I sat in a car and watched with my own eyes what one text did to my life. I sat and watched my two boys be covered up with sheets and told they were dead. No one deserves to live with the pain I live with."

All images used with permission.

Isaiah Krull's story

Isaiah Krull in the hospital after his injuries
Isaiah was in a coma for 10 days
following his crash.
Photo courtesy of Isaiah Krull.
It was only a mile or so to the next farm field. Two years ago, when Isaiah Krull, then 16, climbed into the back seat of his friend's car on the way to the next detasseling job, he thought, "I don't need to wear a seat belt; it's only a mile or so." When Isaiah woke up several weeks later in the hospital, memories of the crash that nearly took his life were shady at best.

Isaiah and his two friends had been detasseling corn near the northeast Iowa town of Reinbeck. It was a hot, dusty day when the car with the three teens finished one field and prepared to move on to the next. Isaiah said, "The other two got in the front seat and put on their seat belts because that was the law. Since I was in the back seat, I didn't put mine on because I didn't have to."

Isaiah Krull in the hospital after his injuries
Isaiah suffered severe head trauma
as a passenger in a friend's car that
collided with a converted school bus.
Photo courtesy of Isaiah Krull.
On the way to the next field, the dust was so thick the driver never saw the converted school bus, until it was too late. Isaiah said the front seat passenger in the vehicle instinctively put his head between his legs, just as the window above him was shattered and the top half of the car severed. "That saved his life," said Isaiah. "I bounced around the back seat and ended up with many injuries, but I was lucky to be alive. I think I'm alive today to share the message that everyone needs to wear a seat belt, no matter where you are in the car and no matter how old you are."

Isaiah Krull doing physical therapy in the hospital
Once he regained consciousness
following the crash, Isaiah was in the
hospital for several more months.
Photo courtesy of Isaiah Krull.
Isaiah, a 220-pound football player at the time of the crash, thought restraints in the back seat were only for children. "I always thought little kids should wear seat belts. It is easy to see where they might be thrown around if they didn't have seat belts. But I thought I was too big for that. I was wrong." Upon impact with the bus, Isaiah's body was projected forward, tossing him toward his friends. The roof of the car came down and sent him back to the back seat. When emergency responders arrived at the scene, he was airlifted to Covenant Hospital in Waterloo, where he remained briefly; and then he was airlifted to Iowa City due to the severity of his brain injury.

He said, "My injuries were caused by flying around during the crash and hitting my head. If I had been wearing a seat belt that day, I probably would have been fine, just like the driver."

As a result of the crash, Isaiah suffered a fractured right cheek and severe traumatic brain injury. He spent 10 days in a coma, a month in the Iowa City Children's Hospital, and then another two and a half months at a rehabilitation clinic in Chicago where he had to relearn to walk and talk. For much of that time, he was fed through a feeding tube. "They told my parents that they didn't think I would ever be able to do much," said Isaiah, now a student at Hawkeye Community College. "I know God saved my life that day. Now I can help get the word out that seat belts do save lives."

Isaiah joined lawmakers, law enforcement officers and Iowa DOT officials to promote stricter seat b
Isaiah Krull
During his rehabilitation, Isaiah
had to relearn basic skills
like eating, walking and talking.
Photo courtesy of Isaiah Krull.
elt laws. On July 1, a new restriction was put in place that all individuals under age 18 must be restrained regardless of vehicle seating position.

But Isaiah isn't done yet. "This was a first step," he said, "The next time around the law needs to be for everyone, including adults, to wear seat belts. I don't want anyone to have to go through what I've been through."

Finding a "new normal" - Jon Bronemann's story

When Jon Bronemann's wife Angi was killed in a car crash on U.S. 30 near Ames in 2001, he found solace in sharing positive messages learned from the experience. The most positive of these was his young son, Michael, then 17-months old, who was saved from death or serious injury because Angi had properly restrained him in his car seat that day.

 Jon and his wife with their son as an infant
Jon, Angi and Michael Bronemann
taken shortly before Angi was killed
In a car crash near Ames.
Photo courtesy of Jon Bronemann.
Bronemann said, "I got involved with the effort to educate people about the importance of proper safety restraints just five weeks after Angi was killed. I spoke at the Capitol for the kickoff of the Buckle Up Baby campaign in May 2001. I was joined there by Officer Al Lavender of the Ames Police who pulled Michael from the wreckage that day. Al took great care in 'ministering' to me the days and weeks after the accident. He was careful to make sure that I was spared as many of the gory details as possible and he even went back to find my son's sock monkey and cleaned it up prior to bringing it to us at the hospital. You can imagine what he was cleaning off of it. This particular accident hurt Al deeply. I know this because he admitted he carried Angi's driver's license in his uniform shirt pocket each day for several months. It was hard for him to let go and he finally mailed it back to me. Al has become a great friend. We speak every few months and see each other once a year or so. He even attended my wedding to my new wife, Tammy, five years ago. I am honored to call this man my friend.

"I met several of the other first responders from the accident that day at the Buckle Up Baby kickoff. Meeting the young fireman who did CPR on Angi was very hard. To see his own sadness and grief is something I will never forget. Our first responders are victims of these accidents too. They carry the images of these accidents with them daily, but continue to respond to the next call and the next sad set of circumstances with such dedication and compassion for others. These are the true heroes."

Since the crash, Bronemann has been able to move on in his life, due in part to a grief support group he and his wife, Tammy, started through their church in Cedar Falls. He said, "My wife, Tammy, who lost her husband to cancer, and I found that this was needed as there wasn't anything locally for young grieving spouses when we started our own grief journeys. We also do a grief support group for preretired people at Cedar Valley Hospice."

Through this experience, the Bronemanns have learned a valuable lesson to share, "All that you have, and means the world to you, really can be taken from you in an instant," said Bronemann. "The things that you most cherish in your life can and will be taken from you if you don't take the right precautions and act accordingly, and this includes buckling up, among other things. I have helped families in the grief process who have lost children in car accidents. The guilt and questions of 'why' are so hard to help them deal with. If something as simple as taking a second to click a seat belt can save a person from a lifetime of grief, I sure think it is worth it to do."

Jon, with his son and Governor Culver
Jon (right) and Michael (center) have
lobbied for increased passenger safety
belt laws since Michael was saved from
serious injury or death in a crash that
killed his mother nine years ago.
Photo courtesy of Jon Bronemann.
In addition to one-on-one and small group counseling, Bronemann has continued his lobbying efforts to improve seat belt laws by working closely with the advocacy group from Blank Children's Hospital. He said, "I personally wrote each member of the legislature that was either leaning toward voting against or was definitely against the changes to the [Iowa] laws we were proposing. This law came up several times over the last nine years; and sometimes it wouldn't even make it out of the subcommittee or would be killed by leaders of the house or senate before it would even come up for debate. I made trips to Des Moines to meet personally with a few legislators at some informal gatherings to educate them on why these changes were necessary."

Bronemann said, "It really helps to know that after almost nine years of sharing a very painful story with hundreds of people firsthand, and thousands through the media and commercials, that we have this new law that will guide parents in what to do and why it is so important. I would not have Michael today if my wife wasn't so cautious about how and where he was buckled up. I wanted to share this story with others to possibly spare them even a portion of the grief I've experienced. There isn't a time that my own children get in the car that they don't buckle up.

"Being involved with this allowed me to heal. My grieving process was public as a result. In our grief support ministry, both my wife and I will say that you need to tell your story a thousand times before you can begin to heal and move on to your 'new normal.' If you can't share your story, it is almost impossible to move forward. The body needs to grieve. If you don't let it out, it will eventually come out on its own, and many times in unproductive and hurtful ways.

To see this law in place has helped me have a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction knowing that publicly sharing my grief and pain wasn't done in vain; and for Michael, that losing his mother wasn't in vain either. Something very, very good has come from all of this."

Shelby's story

The popcorn will never be the same. "Movie nights were always great," said Shelby Mullnix, a 14-year-old freshman from Williamsburg. "My best friend Melissa had a secret recipe for spicing up popcorn. She would never tell anyone what it was. Now we'll never know."
Shelby and Melissa
Best friends
Shelby and Mellissa.

Shelby's friend Melissa took the secret of her popcorn spice with her when a sleepy driver crashed into the van she was riding in Feb. 16, 2010. It is doubtful she ever knew what hit her. Melissa's mom, Karen Dye, was driving her daughter, Melissa, and son, Mike, to Iowa City on Interstate 80. "We had passed a state trooper with its lights on by the Oxford interchange. We slowed down and then stopped because there was a crash up ahead. The next thing I knew, I woke up and looked in the back to see Melissa slumped over in the seat."

The stationary Dye vehicle had been hit from behind by a sleeping driver estimated to be traveling at 70 mph. "When the investigation showed the driver had been asleep, it was hard to understand," said Dye. "How can someone driving sleepy cause my child to die? I just didn't understand how dangerous that is."

Shelby and Melissa
Shelby and Melissa
More like sisters.
For Mullnix, Feb. 16, 2010, was just a normal day at school. "The state tournament was coming and we had a pep assembly. Melissa left to go to an eye doctor appointment in Iowa City," she explained. "Later that day, my boyfriend at the time called to tell me about the crash. I thought it was just a really bad joke. I didn't want to believe him. When reality started to sink in, I went to my room and just held a photo of me and Melissa. I didn't know what to do." The last year without Melissa has been hard on Mullnix. "Melissa guided me in a lot of ways," said Mullnix. "Since her death, I've made a lot of bad choices without her there. I've tried drinking and have been on prescription medicine for depression, but nothing made the pain of losing her go away."

Mullnix, Dye and others close to Melissa are in group counseling together. "That has helped some," said Mullnix, "but I wanted to do more to make sure this doesn't happen to other people."

Mullnix is a member of Family Community Career Leaders of America (FCCLA), a nonprofit national organization focused on personal growth and leadership development to prepare young people for adult life. To honor her friend and continue her own healing, Mullnix has begun a service project to alert others of the dangers of distracted driving and how it feels to have your best friend killed at age 14.

Shelby Mullnix
Shelby Mullnix
A distracted driver is any driver not devoting complete attention to the task of driving. Sleepiness is just one of many distractions in our hectic world. "The goal of my project is to show people that you can get through a tragedy like this," said Mullnix. Elements of the project include a video, posters, bookmarks and presentation to her school. She also conducted a survey of 50 members of the junior class to raise awareness of distracted driving.

The effects of living with the reality of what happened do not go away, but Mullnix says it is getting a little easier to get through each day. "I think it helps to talk about Melissa and what happened," she said. "But I just got my permit and I'm terrified to drive, not because I'm inexperienced, but I worry about what other people are doing behind the wheel that takes their attention off driving."