KENNEBUNK, Maine — A Kennebunk family is thankful for what they call a “miracle” after a 35-car pile-up on a Pennsylvania highway left them all injured but alive.
Justin and Katie Sweeney, along with their two children, Molly and Carter, were traveling to Tennessee on Dec. 26 to visit Katie Sweeney’s family when they were involved in the accident, caused by an unexpected snow squall. Their Toyota Prius was left mangled when it slid head-on into a pile of vehicles on Interstate 78, then hit on the driver’s side by an 18-wheeler truck and rear ended by another Prius.
After the collision, hanging just above the rear passenger seat where 9-year-old Molly had been sitting, was the gas tank of the 18-wheeler, said Justin Sweeney, the Youth and Family Pastor at New Life Church in Biddeford, who said he was able to push his daughter to the center of their car just before the truck struck.
Molly suffered several fractures to her pelvis, Justin a broken sternum and partially collapsed lung, while 7-year-old Carter and mom Katie, a response to intervention teacher at Kennebunk Elementary School, were scratched and bruised.
“As I look at the pictures [of the vehicle] and as I remember that day so vividly, I truly know that it is a miracle that I should have my entire family together, that I didn’t lose my entire family in that crash,” Justin Sweeney said. “It was the worst day of my life, but a day of blessings. You hug your family tighter and are so thankful for them.”
After a long week of treatment at Pennsylvania hospitals, the family is now back in their Kennebunk home and healing while the community is stepping up to offer support. A fundraising page to support the family has been set up on gofundme.com, where donations have been pouring in. Since its creation on Dec. 30 by friend Nicole Rossics, the page has raised more than $8,000 to help offset the family’s medical expenses, travel expenses, and other costs they will incur from the accident.
In addition, members of Justin Sweeney’s church community have prepared meals, while Katie’s peers at KES have offered to clean the house and others have helped with snow plowing and more.
“We’ve absolutely been blown away by the support of friends and family, our church family, our neighbors,” Justin Sweeney said. “People have been so creative with their generosity and kindness. They’ve gone above and beyond.”
The Sweeneys, who have lived in Kennebunk for about three years, said they checked the weather report on Dec. 26 but that there was no prediction of snow. As they traveled on I-78 through Pennsylvania that morning, intense snow hit about five minutes before the accident, said Katie Sweeney, who was driving at the time. She told her husband that she thought other cars were driving too fast for the conditions and that she was becoming nervous about being on the road.
“The next thing you know, we crest a hill and there are cars everywhere. They were literally from guardrail to guardrail,” she said. “There was nowhere to go. No way to control things.”
Katie Sweeney said she pumped the brakes, but the road was a sheet of ice and their Prius continued to slide. As he anticipated the initial collision, Justin Sweeney said he reached back to make sure his children were sitting upright. Just seconds after the Prius hit into a number of vehicles head-on, he looked behind their vehicle to see the 18-wheeler sliding towards them and pushed his daughter from her rear passenger side seat to the middle of the vehicle.
“It just crushed through the whole driver’s side of our vehicle. Molly ended up in the middle seat of the Prius and where she was sitting I looked up and there was the gas tank of the 18-wheeler.”
Katie Sweeney said they sat for a few minutes, until they no longer felt “aftershocks” of the pileup continuing to take place. Then they crawled out of the front passenger side door and waited in the cab of a truck next to them.
“We laid Molly down in the cab. She had her head in Carter’s lap and he was patting her cheeks and he kept telling her, ‘God must have a really great plan for us because we’re still alive,’” Katie Sweeney said. “He’s 7 and he’s consoling her. It was a real precious moment and we were able to pray together and sing together and it helped to calm their nerves, calm the whole atmosphere. We realized we were all OK and we were going to be all right.”
All four were initially transported to St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading, Pa., where they underwent X-rays and other tests. Due to her injuries, doctors airlifted Molly to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, while Justin was airlifted to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, also in Philadelphia. Katie and Carter were treated and released.
Molly, a competitive gymnast, is currently using a wheelchair, walker and crutches, and while there is a long road to recovery ahead with physical therapy, she has done “miraculously well,” Katie Sweeney said.
“She’s just as strong as she can be, she’s incredible. She has this little stubborn determination side to her, which is helpful in these situations,” Katie Sweeney said.
That’s how the Sweeneys met Rossics, who set up the donation Web page — through both their daughters attending Gymnation in Kennebunk. Katie Sweeney said after the accident she began to worry about how the family would move forward financially. She prayed out loud and said a sense of peace came over her. It was the next day that Rossics created the fund.
“When I heard this happened, it’s like ‘oh my gosh,’ you just want to help,” Rossics said. “They’re just good, good, good people. These things only happen to the best people.”
Rossics said she set a goal on the fundraising page of $3,000, which was quickly surpassed. So was her next goal of $5,000, and it continues to grow.
The Sweeneys said the generosity has been overwhelming and, while appreciated, hard to accept.
“Anything you can give as a thank you just seems to fall so short. What card can I write in order to make it sound worthy of what is being done? There are just no words that can really describe how we feel,” she said. “It’s humbling. We feel loved. It’s always a little bit more fun to be on the giving end. At the same time, this is how the Lord is choosing to organize things and I certainly don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think things are orchestrated for a reason. I’m so thankful people’s hearts are soft for us. We feel very loved and fortunate to be here in this community.”
During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, Katie Sweeney said it’s easy to become consumed with finding the right gift for everyone in your family and making sure the holidays are perfect. But this holiday season, the answer was simple.
“I look around at my family and we are each other’s greatest gifts,” she said. “We’re very lucky to have each other.”
To support the Sweeney family, visit www.gofundme.com and search for “The Sweeney family.”