Every three years, Centre High School has a car crash simulation and speakers to remind students to be safe drivers. After Friday’s presentation, an observer said it was the quietest they had ever heard the students.
After the crash simulation, Lisa Hanschu spoke to the students about the night her son, James Weber, was in a fatal car crash on July 22, 2009. James had graduated from CHS a couple of months before the crash and was preparing to attend Kansas State University.
Earlier that day, Weber went to Manhattan to finish some projects at the house he and four friends were going to share. He surprised Hanschu at a birthday party that evening, spent some time socializing, and had some birthday cake. Then he left to check his deer cameras, pack a bag for a family trip the next day, and spend some time at a pond with friends.
“As I always did, from since he was a little boy, I told him, ‘Bubba, be safe, I love you,’ and he smiled at me, and he said, ‘Too,’” Hanschu said Friday.
Later, Hanschu received a call that there had been an accident, and Weber wasn’t answering his phone. She tried calling him several times with no answer, before a call came confirming he was in the accident.
She rushed to the scene of the accident, praying the whole way that Weber would be safe. The only lights at the scene were from ambulances and fire trucks.
“I saw the truck, front end damaged badly,” Hanschu said. “As I got closer, the mother of one of the boys took my hand — she had blood on her shirt — she held my hand and said, ‘Hurry.’
“I saw the car and people around it, but she led me further away, next to James’ side,” Hanschu said. “As I knelt on the ground next to him, I watched him writhing in pain, moaning. The left side of his body, however, had no movement.”
As Hanschu followed the emergency medical technicians as they were taking Weber to an ambulance, she saw Jeremiah Stang trapped in the car, as well as Jessica Deines and Alex Hajek, who were also involved in the crash. Weber had introduced Stang to Hanschu just days before. Like Weber, Stang died of injuries sustained in the crash.
Weber and Stang were taken by Life Watch helicopter to Wichita. As Weber was transferred to the helicopter, Hanschu grabbed the arm of the pilot and asked him to tell her Weber would make it.
“In a gesture that I will never forget, the pilot stopped the men that were carrying James, and he told me to put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that I loved him. I did,” Hanschu said.
“The ride to Wichita was unbearable,” she said. “I had called Anna (Weber’s sister). I could hear the pain and desperation in her voice — she wanted to be with us. She begged me for answers that I could not give yet. I told her to pray and I would call back as soon as I knew.”
At the hospital, a small room was spilling over with family, friends, and neighbors. When the trauma surgeon walked into the room and asked who Weber’s parents were, Hanschu stepped forward. The surgeon told her that Weber hadn’t survived, despite everyone doing all they could. His heart stopped beating 15 minutes before arriving at the hospital.
“In the next room, in a cold, sterile room, on a metal table, there lay my son,” she said. “19 years old, and he was gone, partially covered in a sheet, still in the C-collar with a large tube coming out of his mouth, still taped to the backboard, his eyes slightly open but seeing nothing.
“I just looked at him,” Hanschu said. “I knew I would wake up; this was only a dream. He had so much ahead of him, so much yet to do; this couldn’t be real.
“I brushed back his hair and touched his face,” she said. “I shook him; he wouldn’t move. I took a washcloth and cleaned the drying blood from his face, from his neck where they had attempted a tracheotomy, begging for him to wake up; looking around the room in the hope that someone could help me, that someone could bring him back.”
It wasn’t long before a nurse came into the room and reminded Hanschu of a choice Weber had made several years before. He had signed the back of his driver’s license to be an organ donor. It was something they had discussed together, and she had given him the chance to make the decision himself.
His vital organs were too severely damaged to be donated, but his tissues, ligaments, and bone grafts have given a better quality of life to more than 100 people, Hanschu said.
Two days later, Stang died from his injuries.
“We went from planning college futures and birthday parties to planning funerals, summing up their lives in words and songs and talking about them in the past tense,” Hanschu said.
She said she knows from experience that time doesn’t actually heal all wounds. She still feels the pain and void left by her son’s death every day.
The tragedy of July 22, 2009, wasn’t anyone’s fault, she said. The crash happened at a blind intersection on a county road; nobody had been drinking or was texting. But Hanschu emphasized that people can make choices to improve their safety from crashes that are avoidable.
“The choice to not text and drive, to not drink and drive, to not allow yourself to become distracted or to be careless in your actions,” she said. “Passengers, you have a choice, to get in a car and hold the driver responsible for their actions.
“Today it is me standing before you,” Hanschu said. “Three years ago, when James was sitting where you are now, it never crossed his mind that I would be standing here addressing you. Could you imagine your mother or father standing here in my place?”
After Hanschu finished her speech, several students went to hug her with tears welling in their eyes. Even the students who may not have known Weber very well know his younger sister, Anna, who is a student at CHS.