ORONO, Maine — For Isis Bell-Smith and Ryan Laracy of Orono, doing ordinary things — such as playing with Felix, their chatty toddler — feel downright miraculous these days.
That’s because they are still amazed to have survived an accident that happened at the outset of a Sunday drive the family took two weeks ago. That rainy afternoon, a massive tree limb suddenly crashed down on their vehicle, crushing their Jeep and trapping them inside. Bell-Smith, 39, and two-and-a-half-year-old Felix Bell-Smith Laracy both broke their necks in the crash.
The two have to wear matching neck braces, while their fused vertebrae heal. They don’t have health insurance and are not sure what to do about the flood of hospital bills that will await them. But they’re alive, mobile, and feeling love and gratitude for the magnitude of support that has come from strangers and friends alike.
“All in all, we’re okay,” Bell-Smith said. “We are both broken, and this is going to be awhile of healing. But relative to what this could have been, we are fine. It was an inch, an instant, from a totally different situation.”
‘The most terrifying moment of my life’
The afternoon of May 4 for the family had begun with a flurry of activity, as Bell-Smith packed extra clothes for their rainy outing and switched vehicles with her mother, so they would not have to take their Buick LeSabre on the road. That small decision may have made a difference just a mile or so down Main Street, when Bell-Smith, who was driving, saw something unusual out of the corner of her eye.
All of a sudden, a limb from one of the large maple trees that line Main Street fell across the car diagonally, leaving the Jeep a crumpled wreck. Bell-Smith said she can’t remember the moment of impact and believes that shock must have set in immediately. She couldn’t move, but her foot was still stepping on the accelerator. Doug Johnson of Orono came up to the vehicle and said her name, while he reached in to take the key out of the ignition.
“Damn. That really happened,” Bell-Smith, a yoga teacher and longtime resident of the college town, remembers thinking.
She said Felix, strapped into his car seat behind her, was moaning, and although she couldn’t turn to see him, she saw his feet were kicking. She held his feet, telling him it was going to be OK.
Meanwhile, Laracy, who also was hurt but not as badly, struggled to get out of the vehicle. Some bystanders helped him bend his door so he could escape.
All around the Jeep, people sprang into action. A neighbor ran over with a chainsaw to start trying to extricate them. Rescuers from the Orono Fire Department quickly arrived and used another chainsaw to start dismantling the vehicle. Laracy said time was of the essence, as Felix was being strangled because of the weight that was bearing down on his head.
“I was squeezed,” Felix said.
Rescuers put blocks in to support the roof, so nothing more could crunch down on the toddler, and a towel was placed over Bell-Smith so she wouldn’t get hit by flying wood chips.
“I was the whole time panicking they weren’t getting the tree off fast enough,” he said. “It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I thought my world was going to disappear.”
‘I’m so grateful to everyone and everything’
Bell-Smith said that when a violent hailstorm began just as rescuers were extricating her from the Jeep, it added another layer to the improbable day.
“No way,” she remembered thinking.
Ambulances took the family to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where trauma unit workers learned that Felix had fractured one of the vertebrae in his upper neck and slightly dislocated a disc. Bell-Smith was frantic to see her son, but the hospital staff told her that she needed to be checked out, too. The scan showed that she and Felix had the same injuries.
“So, we both got an ambulance ride down to Portland,” she said.
At Maine Medical Center in Portland, where they spent about a week, both mother and son had surgery to have their vertebrae fused together.
As Bell-Smith and Felix began their recovery, the community opened its arms to the family. Roberta Bradson of The Store in Orono, immediately set out a donation jar to help the family. Laracy works at Woodman’s Bar & Grill in Orono, and his shifts were picked up by his co-workers, who set aside tip money for their absent friend. The restaurant is holding a benefit raffle for them. Om Land Yoga in Orono, where Bell-Smith teaches classes, held a benefit class to raise money for the family. Orono High School put on a performance of “12th Night” to raise money for the family. Friends have stopped by with food, and a stranger they met in Target gave them a gift certificate for $100 after she learned that they were the family injured by the falling tree. Vendors and customers at the European Farmer’s Market in Bangor took up a collection to help. Laracy’s osteopath, who helped get his body aligned after the accident, did not charge him for the work she did.
And the list goes on.
“It’s so humbling,” Bell-Smith said. “I don’t know how to process the amount of love.”
She said that part of living in a small community is that residents know, or know of, just about everyone else. When something scary and traumatic happens, it can bring people closer.
“A lot of people who have come up to us are very emotional. Very touched. Very happy that we’re alive,” she said. “I am so grateful to everyone and everything. … It’s hard to be in a place of need. I want to be the one giving. I want to know who that woman was at Target. To that woman, to every single person who has dropped their change in the jar, the biggest, warmest thank you. That is what has turned this from tragedy to strength.”