By Jen Bakken
It was the afternoon of September 10, 2007 when 17-year-old Kayle Denny borrowed her mom’s Ford Explorer to give her friend, Alex, a ride to drop off a job application.
Another friend named Katie went along for the 28-mile trip to Warsaw, Mo.
Soon after they left their hometown of Windsor Mo., it began to rain. They traveled downhill on an s-curve at approximately 35 miles per hour.
When they reached the bottom of the hill, the vehicle suddenly hydroplaned to the right. Kayle panicked, overcorrected, and went off the left side of the road.
The vehicle struck an embankment and rolled several times before resting on its wheels.
“Kayle has always been an avid seatbelt wearer,” said her mother Darla Smith. “But for some unexplainable reason, she did not have hers on. In fact, none of the three were wearing seat belts and were all ejected from the vehicle.”
Kayle’s friends were found near the vehicle. Alex had died on impact, and Katie suffered a fractured pelvis.
Kayle was thrown 100 feet from the car and landed in a creek. Her spinal cord was injured as the result of a broken neck, and her back was also broken.
While Kayle was in intensive care for 16 days, she was unable to move anything below her neck except her left arm slightly.
She was in the hospital for just over two months receiving intensive rehabilitation therapy.
Although she is diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia, she is able to walk a little with a cane. She continues to work hard and make progress.
She has full use of both arms and though her fingers are curled under from nerve damage and very weak, she has brought herself to the point of near complete independence.
Due to Kayle’s intensive therapy schedule and fatigue, she was unable to return to school until January.
Missing out on her senior year in high school, giving up on her hopes of being an actress, and dealing with changes in her self image haven’t been the worst of Kayle’s emotional battles.
The guilt she feels over the death of her friend is by far the most difficult.
“For all of the physical pain and suffering Kayle has endured,” explained Smith. “She will tell you it does not even begin to compare with the emotional issues.”
As Smith dealt with one of every parent’s worst nightmares, she wanted to help her daughter in anyway she could.
Kayle felt like no one understood her, and her mother set out to find someone who could understand.
Sitting at her computer one day she typed in “teen car crash survivors” into the Google search engine.
The first thing she came across was a Delano Herald Journal article about Safe Communities of Wright County (SCWC).
Its mission is to reduce motor vehicle crashes and the associated injuries and fatalities through a community-based approach.
The organization offers a 90-minute presentation for teen drivers and their parents.
At these presentations, there are law enforcement officers and emergency rescue personnel who speak about teen driving from their own perspectives.
There are also crash survivors who speak about their experiences.
One of these survivors is Tim Lemmerman, formerly of Delano. At age 17, he caused a serious car crash while traveling south on Highway 25 near Foley.
When he passed slower-moving cars, he missed an intersection and collided with another car.
“I wasn’t paying attention like I should have been,” said Tim Lemmerman. “Being 17, feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof, I decided to pass the slow moving cars.”
Lemmerman and his passenger, a teen-aged friend, weren’t wearing their seat belts, and were ejected from the car.
The family of four that he collided with all died on impact, and his good friend later died at the hospital.
Though Lemmerman also had serious injuries, he survived.
With the hope that young drivers will learn from his mistake, he shares what it was like for him to go back to school, and wonder why he survived when it was his fault.
He talks about the way he was treated by people because he took their friend and family members away. When he discusses depression and how this event changed his life, he hopes no one will have to go through what he went through.
But someone did go through a similar situation, miles away from Minnesota, and her mother was hoping maybe she had found a person who could understand what her daughter was going through.
After reading the article about Lemmerman, she then typed in his name into the Google search engine and as though it were meant to be, she found an e-mail address for him right away.
She sent him an e-mail hoping maybe he would be willing to talk to Kayle and tell her about all the things he has gone through. She wanted him to tell her about how he hasn’t given up, but rather used his tragedy to prevent other tragedies.
Lemmerman e-mailed Smith the next day and then he called to speak to Kayle.
During their conversation, she told Lemmerman about a speech she had written about the importance of wearing seat belts.
He told Kayle that she was already miles ahead of where he was after the crash, because for a long time, he didn’t or couldn’t talk about it at all.
Having someone who had actually gone through a similar situation on the other end of the phone meant a lot to Kayle.
“I know the Lord is going to continue to make sure all our needs are met,” said Smith. “Just as he did that day when Kayle felt no reason to go on, and then a man who was completely able to empathize with her gave her the encouragement to recognize her strength and regain hold on it.”
For Lemmerman, this whole experience has been a bit surreal and almost like looking in a mirror.
It brought him right back to being 17 again and paging though that chapter in his life.
He hopes Kayle is able to continue on the goals she had for herself prior to the crash as she lives her life.
Lemmerman admits he didn’t handle things very well after his crash, and tried to hide this from people around him.
“I am responsible for the death of five people,” he said. “There is no way to describe the weight of that to someone to help them understand how you feel. What Kayle and I did was not intentional, but it happened. Her biggest obstacle will be forgiving herself. She needs to know there is a reason the crash happened and a reason why she is still here.”
Both crash survivors plan to keep in touch, and are thankful that even though they live in different states, the Internet was able to bring them together.