COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s the last thing Levi O’Rourke sees at night as he’s falling asleep — his wife slumped over the steering wheel.
From his wheelchair at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, O’Rourke, who requested to share his story publicly, said he feels like he’s living in a nightmare.
On Aug. 1, O’Rourke, his wife, Samantha, and two children drove home from his job in Lancaster to Knox County. Samantha was full of happy news. She’d climbed the smokestack tower in Mount Vernon earlier in the day with her son Austin, 14.
“My wife called me about midday, and you could hear her joy,” O’Rourke, 33, of Amity, said this week. “She was excited. And she said, ‘You wouldn’t believe what Austin and I are doing.’
“I said, ‘What?’ and she said, ‘We’re walking down from the top of the tower.’ He made it all the way up, all the eight platforms. I got to tell that boy how proud I was of him.
“That was the last photo I got from her phone. It was them two at the top of the tower.”
Now Austin is fighting to regain his health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. The child was sitting behind his mother during the car accident that claimed her life hours later.
An ordinary drive
Austin, his sister Arianna Faith O’Neil, 9, and Samantha headed to Lancaster in their Hyundai Elantra to pick Levi up from his job as a truck driver in Lancaster.
“We got a couple miles from Fredericktown,” O’Rourke said. “We were all just talking, general conversation, and voicing how proud I was on that accomplishment of his, and asking Arianna how her day was. As I’m looking outside the right-hand side of the windshield, my wife said, ‘What the heck.'”
A Chevrolet Silverado driven by Vince Arthur, 36, of Reineyville, Kentucky, went left of center and struck O’Rourke’s car head on, according to the report from Ohio State Highway Patrol.
“I reached my hand up trying to get to the steering wheel; I was going to try to get us to the ditch,” O’Rourke said. He cleared his throat. “And I didn’t even get my hand to the center console before the impact. I could feel the impact and that momentum instantly moved us the other way.
“I’d never felt nothing with so much force in my life.”
O’Rourke said he called out to the others in car.
“Nobody’s responding,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I didn’t know I was pinned in by the dash. My leg and hip and pelvis were broke. …
“People pulled me out the car, and as they did, I could feel my ankle slope and my hip and I hear my daughter crying over beside me on the side, on the grass with these people trying to help her to lay flat. I told her, ‘Stay calm, baby, just listen to them, be calm and it will be all right.'”
The responders pulled O’Rourke and Arianna from the car first, and the rescue effort quickly escalated to calling in air medical services. Samantha and Austin were still inside the car.
“I saw my wife slumped over that damn steering wheel,” O’Rourke said. “My oldest son was sloped over the back of her seat, and neither one of them was moving.”
Four helicopters, then three
Then came the change in their situation that gave O’Rourke the sense of how bad the accident was.
“I heard them order four helicopters: one for Grant, one for OSU, and two for Nationwide Children’s. And by the time they got Austin out of the car, I heard that officer on the radio cancel the one for Grant.”
Austin had the most severe injuries and left first by air for Columbus.
“Nobody was pulling my wife out of the car, and no one was doing CPR on her. She was just there. I was trying to figure out what was going on with my wife. Nobody would tell me.
“When I got down here at OSU, I wasn’t giving them no grief, I don’t think. but I was pretty rowdy. I needed to know what was going on, and I needed to know what to do for my kids and my wife. As I’m asking, this fella says, ‘Man, do you want to know the truth?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m asking you. If you asked me, I’d be honest with you.’
“Just tell me what’s going on so I know what I have to do as a dad.”
O’Rourke choked back tears as he remembered what the medic told him.
“He said, ‘Buddy, she never made it out of the car.'”
A wife who stood by her husband
“My whole life changed right then and there. Every moment of my life that I have had, nobody’s just stood by me for every single part. No matter what I was doing, she always did.”
Then O’Rourke had to make the call to his children who weren’t in the car, the call no parent even wants to think about.
O’Rourke said Austin and Arianna remain in the hospital.
Vernon Church is appealing to people to help the O’Rourke family rebuild, and has set up a page for donations.
One man is in jail
Arthur, the driver of the Silverado, is facing charges including aggravated vehicular homicide. He is being held in the Knox County Jail on a $100,000 bond.
Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville said his team will be alleging that Arthur was impaired by alcohol when the accident occurred.
Mount Vernon Law Director Rob Broeren said the bar where Arthur may have been drinking is under investigation by state officials.