In an instant, Patterson High School graduate Jimmy Anderson of Wisconsin lost his mother, father and brother, and he would soon lose all movement of his arms and legs. Rowell, who drove through a stop sign while under the influence of alcohol, left behind friends and family in Patterson.
More than a year later, Anderson hopes to get the word out about the perils of drunken driving through word of mouth and public-speaking engagements as he continues to earn his law degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He remains thankful for Patterson residents who hosted vigils for his family after the accident and gave donations that helped him as he was trying to get his life back together.
“I want to thank the town and let them know that I’m all right; I’m OK, and I’m still trucking,” he said last week.
A time to reflect
Anderson, 25, said he has found the gumption to read news coverage of last year’s crash only within the past month or so.
“It was drier than I thought it was going to be,” Anderson said of the experience. “There was so little information out there after the accident. Some reports said I had died. Others said I was alive.”
The 2004 Patterson High School graduate has few memories of that fateful day. He recalls playing golf with a friend, Corey Bergendahl, at River Oaks Golf Course in Ceres the morning of the crash and stopping around the 12th or 13th hole, because it became too hot.
Bergendahl recalls Anderson spending time at his and his girlfriend’s home before heading off to dinner with his family. Anderson had said he would text him when they finished, but that text never arrived.
At 6:15 p.m., as the Andersons were heading out of town eastbound on East Las Palmas Avenue, Rowell drove through a stop sign in his 1993 Chevy van while heading north on Elm Avenue, crashing into the Andersons’ 1998 Ford SUV.
James Anderson, 49, the driver of the SUV, died at the scene with his wife, Emma “Gabby” Anderson, 44, and their younger son, Andrew Anderson, 15, all of Patterson. Jimmy Anderson, who was in Patterson to visit his family, said he has only a vague, dream-like memory of the aftermath of the crash, and he is not sure his recollection is even accurate.
He thinks he recalls hanging upside down, screaming, as he heard the police arrive. He has since learned that the SUV was overturned and that he was conscious when paramedics were at the scene.
Toxicology results later indicated that Rowell had a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent when he died, and traces of marijuana were in his system, though it is unclear whether he was actually under the influence of the drug, according to Kristi Ah You, chief deputy coroner for Stanislaus County.
Rowell, who had been working on his family’s Crows Landing ranch, was later described by friends as a dedicated friend and a true cowboy, though they all expressed regret over the crash.
Immediate family members could not be reached for comment this week. Nicky Gupton, whose husband was previously married to Rowell’s sister, said she had been told that the coroner’s report indicated Rowell had died from a stroke just before the crash.
Ah You said the report indicated that he had died from injuries related to the accident.
Awakening to tragedy
Anderson came to a few days later at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto after being in a drug-induced coma for a few days. His wife, Ashley, who was spending time with friends in Modesto the evening of the crash, had the task of notifying him that he was paralyzed and that all the members of his immediate family were dead.
“It was incredibly surreal,” Anderson recalled. “It was so much information that you almost couldn’t process it. It took a few weeks for it to settle in and to realize what it meant for my life and all that other stuff.”
He recalled feeling numb at first. He was being medicated and was on a ventilator when he first received the news, and he did not even have the ability to speak.
Anderson remained hospitalized in Modesto for three weeks, even as friends and community members hosted vigils and fundraisers in Patterson. A two-day candlelight vigil at Patterson High School two days after the crash and a memorial service at the high school gym in September both attracted hundreds of residents.
Jimmy’s brother, Andrew, was a freshman who played for the junior varsity football team, and his father, James, was an assistant coach for the Patterson Redskins Pop Warner football team. The Redskins honored the family during their Aug. 28, 2010, game against the Ceres Raptors, as players joined hands and bowed their heads during a moment of silence.
“The outside support was really touching,” Anderson said.
In mid-September, when he was healthy enough to travel, Anderson left the Modesto hospital and transferred to the University of Wisconsin Hospital, where his wife’s insurance could better cover the costs of his medical treatment. He stayed in the intensive-care unit a few more weeks and then was released for rehabilitation through mid-November.
Though Anderson can shrug with his shoulders, he can no longer use his triceps. He uses voice recognition software to take notes, and he can type on a touchpad using his pinky knuckle. He reads materials digitally, he said.
“Law school is essentially reading and writing, and I’ve got those things down pretty well,” he said.
He said he is living his life as much the way he used to as he can, under the circumstances.
“One of the most difficult things has been learning to ask for help,” he said. “One thing I have noticed is that people are kind. It’s been a good feeling, in a way.”
Anderson is in his third year of law school, and he hopes to graduate in roughly a year. He plans to specialize in litigation.
His wife, who is attending veterinary school after earning a master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin, has helped him overcome the daily challenges and the immense tragedy of losing his family, he said.
“She never left my side,” he said. “She’s been with me all along the way. If I didn’t have her, I don’t know where I’d be.”
In addition to being a lawyer someday, Anderson hopes to speak at public venues about the dangers of drunken driving. He has contacted Mothers Against Drunk Driving in hopes of making special presentations about how his life has been altered by last year’s tragedy. MADD is a nationally renowned nonprofit that aims to curb drunken driving and underage drinking and to support victims of drunken-driving accidents.
“A lot of people said it was a not-at-fault accident, that no one should be blamed for what happened,” Anderson said. “The fact that needs to be known is that this happened because of alcohol. The fact that people don’t even know that much about that is what surprised me and bothered me about it.”
Anderson’s ability to overcome such insurmountable obstacles was inspiring to those who heard about the crash.
California Highway Patrol officer John Martinez, who offered background details this week about the investigation, said he had no idea that Anderson had continued to study to be a lawyer.
The accident victim’s will to move on, he said, puts matters into perspective for those who occasionally complain because they don’t feel like going to work in the morning.
“What a motivator for these people who lose their limbs,” he said. “(Anderson) is someone to look up to.”
Bergendahl, who has known Anderson since preschool and roomed with him at California State University, Monterey Bay, said he is not surprised by the way Anderson has overcome his challenges.
“He seems like he’s hanging in there,” Bergendahl said. “If it happened to me, it would just crush me, but Jimmy’s a different person.”
He stressed that Jimmy and Ashley Anderson are two of the strongest people he knows.
“For anybody to get through something like this, it would be Jimmy,” he said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187 or firstname.lastname@example.org.>