On a dark Interstate 75 in March, Kayla Somoles and Angelica Mormile survived a wrong-way crash that killed three of their best friends as they headed for a spring break trip.
|Angelica Mormile, left, and Kayla Somoles. (Photo provided BGSU Marketing and Communications)
As Bowling Green State University mourned the deaths of their Alpha Xi Delta sorority sisters - Rebekah Blakkolb, Christina Goyett and Sarah Hammond - the two hospitalized survivors clung to life.
It was unsure whether either would ever return to school.
But when college started up this fall, Somoles and Mormile were back in classes - not looking for pity, but just wanting to make the most of their lives.
Though the road back to college was shorter than many expected, it was hard fought.
Somoles, 20, has four plates in her face. Every bone in her face from the temples down was broken, including her lower jaw which was shattered into 10 pieces. Doctors refused to show her family X-rays because they were so bleak, she said.
"They said I was lucky to be alive," Somoles said. "I'm here, so that's all that matters."
Somoles easily ticks off her extensive list of injuries. Broken nose. Broken arm and wrist. Dislocated hip. Two rib fractures. Major lacerations to her foot and knee. Four teeth knocked out. She was on a ventilator for days after the crash.
Somoles, a junior majoring in middle childhood education from Cleveland, was sitting in the back seat on the passenger side. The impact of the crash sent luggage for the students' spring break trip through the trunk wall and into the back seat of the car.
Mormile, 19, a telecommunications sophomore from Garfield Heights, was sitting in the front passenger seat. Both women know that the seats they chose probably saved their lives since the impact of the head-on crash was worse on the driver's side.
Mormile was left with a brain injury, broken neck, broken lower jaw, broken wrist and leg.
Neither woman remembers the accident that occurred just south of the I-75 exit at Ohio 582. Somoles has vague recollections of being in the sorority house before the trip, then loading up in the car for the trip to the Detroit airport.
For days after the accident, she was forced to write any communication with her family since she had a tracheotomy. She repeatedly asked about the others in the car, but her family was reluctant to share that three of her friends had not survived. Finally they had to tell her.
"I think that's the hardest thing, that we spent the last minutes with them, and I can't remember it," Somoles said.
Mormile recalls even less due to her brain injury. "I don't remember the actual day of the accident," she said.
When she did wake up at the hospital three weeks later, Mormile was unable to answer simple questions such as her age. Even after she was told about her friends, her mind was still foggy.
"I had no idea," she said. "I didn't feel like I was myself. I thought, I have to work to get back to myself, because I know this isn't me."
Over the next couple months, the sorority sisters spent time in hospitals healing their bodies and their souls. The bones mended for both, and Mormile worked to overcome her brain injury.
"I needed help doing everything," Mormile said. "I couldn't eat for two months." So family had to feed her through a syringe.
She progressed from a wheelchair to a walker faster than expected.
"I was just so ready to get up and get on my feet again," Mormile said.
Both girls were determined to return to BGSU. Somoles worked with professors to finish her spring classes online during the summer. Because of her brain injury, Mormile was unable to complete her spring classes, but she was back in August for a new semester.
"My family and I didn't even know if I'd be able to return to school," she said.
"A lot of people are shocked that we are back," Mormile said.
"We weren't supposed to be here," Somoles said.
Some people stare at the more obvious of Somoles' 14 scars. But for the most part, the history shared by the two students is unknown to most of their classmates.
And Mormile's memory seems to be functioning fine.
"I have a couple hard classes, but everyone else thinks they are hard too," so Mormile takes that as another sign that she is back to "normal."
"I feel like it's a complete miracle," Mormile said.
Both women initially felt a great deal of anger toward Winifred Lein, the Perrysburg Township driver who was headed south in the northbound I-75 lane. She was also killed in the crash.
"We got everything taken away from us that night, in a split second," Mormile said.
"I've forgiven her," Somoles said. "It's not going to bring my three friends back."
But the healing continues for the two survivors.
Somoles will have her broken nose fixed later this year, the swelling in her face is still continuing to go down, and her teeth are being realigned with braces.
She is finally smiling again.
"I wouldn't smile with my mouth open because of my teeth," she said.
Once her jaw heals more, Somoles hopes to sink her teeth into a sandwich - any kind of sandwich.
"I can't wait till I bite into a sandwich again," she said.
Mormile is still bothered by the plate in her wrist but her injured leg is getting stronger.
And both women no longer take everyday skills, such as showering and brushing teeth, for granted.
Both are driving again, though admitted their families were worried about them.
"I wasn't scared to get behind the wheel," Mormile said. But she recalled her mom being overly cautious as she drove her daughter to medical appointments after the accident. She would drive 40 or 50 mph on the highway, and say "I have precious cargo in here," Mormile said.
The emotional healing is also underway.
Mormile has decided to talk to a counselor about the loss of her friends and the person she used to be.
"As times goes on, it hits me more," she said.
Somoles is finding help elsewhere, when she visits her friends' graves.
"That's my therapy," she said. "I miss the girls every day, but I know they are looking down on me."
Mormile also feels a bond with her friends, unbroken by death. She has dreams about Christina, who was her "big sis" at the sorority.
"Last night, I had a dream about Rebekah," she said. "I grabbed her and I didn't want to let her go."
"I hope Sarah can come visit me soon."