By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN On the morning of Oct. 10, 2004, Nathan and Connie Backstrom never imagined the horror and heartache that was about to take place within their family.
That night, their three oldest sons were killed by a drunk driver near their home in Farmington.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life is close those three caskets,” Nathan said. “As far as this life is concerned, it’s over. It’s done. You can’t go back.”
Nathan and Connie shared their story with the juniors and seniors at Delano High School Tuesday morning, following a mock crash in which students, community members, and rescue teams acted out a deadly car accident.
Tuesday’s crash was staged, but unfortunately, scenes like that often happen for real, as in the case of 20-year-old Matthew Backstrom and his brothers, 17-year-old Jacob and 16-year-old Justin.
“Life is very fragile. Life is very precious,” Nathan said.
Nathan and Connie are proof that a person who chooses to drink and drive isn’t the only one who has to live with the consequences.
“All it took was a moment, and our lives were turned upside down, never to be the same,” Nathan said.
After the accident, Matthew’s car was a heap of twisted metal, shattered into a thousand pieces. Just like the car, the Backstrom family can never be put back together the way it was before.
When Nathan found out that three of his children were dead, he remembers crying out in prayer, “Dear Jesus, help me.”
“How could I continue driving? For that matter, how could I continue to live?” he said.
The family’s strong Christian faith has been their source of hope.
“It is by the grace of God that we stand here before you today,” Nathan said.
Their faith has also enabled them to forgive the drunk driver.
“Would we lash out in anger, seek revenge? Or would we humbly accept the new life that God has given us?” Nathan said. “My God has forgiven me. Can I do no less?”
The Backstroms speak to students at various schools, hoping to warn against drunk driving, and to inspire people to make the most of each day.
“We’re not guaranteed one more moment,” Nathan said.
“We are here because we believe that you’re worth it. You were created for a purpose,” Connie told the students. “You have incredible potential to make good choices and to accomplish great things.”
Each person takes a different road in life, Nathan said, and it’s a good idea to “write your plans in pencil,” because circumstances can change in an instant.
The night of the crash, the drunk driver that swerved into the Backstrom brothers’ lane caused the two vehicles to hit at a combined speed of 100 miles per hour.
“That’s not enough time to prepare to die,” Nathan said, adding that he is thankful that his boys each had a personal relationship with their Savior.
The day they died started out like any other Sunday. The family went to church, where Nathan and Jacob played in the worship band. Later on, Nathan, a pilot for Northwest Airlines, headed to work. The two youngest Backstrom boys, Ryan and Charles, spent the afternoon playing Legos.
At about 4:30 p.m., Matthew decided to go to Walmart to develop film for a photography project. Not wanting to be left out, Justin and Jacob went with him.
Connie said she hugged each one before they left.
“I watched my Matthew, Jacob, and Justin head down the driveway, not knowing that I’d never see them alive again,” she said.
The boys made a stop at Target, and called home at about 6:30 p.m. to say that they were heading to Walmart. At 7:20 p.m., they called again to let Connie know that they were leaving the Walmart parking lot, and that they’d be home in a half hour.
At 8 p.m., Connie said she wasn’t worried yet.
“Nine o’clock went by,” she said. “The cell phones were turned off; so, I waited.”
At 9:20 p.m., when two sets of headlights appeared in the driveway, Connie thought her sons had met up with a friend.
But when she saw that they were both police cars, she feared the worst.
“I knew instantly that someone was dead,” she said. “But who? How?”
The officer that came to the door uttered words that filled Connie with shock and disbelief. Matthew and Justin were dead, and Jacob was badly injured.
Connie called friends to stay with Ryan and Charles, and rushed to the hospital where Jacob was having surgery.
Nathan met Connie at the hospital, where they learned that Jacob was brain dead and on life support. At 1:15 a.m., Jacob’s parents held his hand as he left this life.
Nathan and Connie then went to the morgue, where they identified the bodies of Matthew and Justin.
“It was just a shell of the boys we had known,” Nathan said.
From that night on, nothing in the Backstrom family’s life was ever the same.
“Our first Christmas, as you can imagine, was very different,” Nathan said. He and Connie gave their sons the money that had been in their brothers’ pockets the night they died. It was about $60, and Connie told Ryan and Charles to remember, “you can’t take it with you.”
When people look at a gravestone, Nathan said they often concentrate on the date of birth, and the date of death. However, the time in between those dates is what is really important.
“Are there things you’d like to change?” he asked. “You don’t know how much time you’re going to have.”
The night his sons died, they were doing everything right they weren’t speeding, they weren’t drinking, and they were all wearing their seatbelts.
But because of one person’s choice to drive carelessly, the family of Matthew, Jacob, and Justin has been left to cope with the consequences.
Some teens wear encounters with the law as a “badge of honor,” Nathan said.
“They think they have everything under control,” he said.
The Backstroms urged the students to think about their choices and to consider the impact that they could have on others.
“We know we can’t change everyone,” Nathan said. “But, maybe, we can change one person.”
To learn more about the Backstroms’ story, go to www.backstrombrothers.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mock crash people
Many people participated in the mock crash at Delano High School, including students Josh Damberg, Molly Hutchins, Christie Gleason, Kyndall Beal, Haley Kraus, McKay Elwood, Claire Schmidt, Elizabeth Roering, and Megan Johnson.
Clarence Bruhn and Dorothy Zitzloff of Delano also acted in the mock crash.
Participating organizations included Delano Fire/Rescue Department, Ridgeview Medical Center, North Air Care, Wright County Sheriff’s Office, Safe Communities of Wright County, Wright County Emergency Management, City of Delano Public Works, Coroners Office of Karen Norell, Hickman’s Service, the Backstrom family, Delano Public Schools, and Sherburne-Wright Cable Commission.