Young survivor of crash gives family hope

BARNETT, Mo. — What about the baby?

Brad Hartwig is on the phone with the Miller County coroner. The shell-shocked grandfather is frantic to know what happened to his grandson, born just two days before. A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper has already called the house with news of the crash, but Hartwig and the rest of the family still don’t know the extent of the loss.

There’s been a head-on collision, coroner Rick Callahan reiterates to the grandfather. Mother, father and 3-year-old son are gone. But a fourth member of the family? The coroner pauses, he doesn’t know anything about a baby. Never saw one.

“I will have to call you back,” Callahan tells Hartwig.

About 12 miles from the crash scene along Missouri 52 in the middle of the state, family members already have started to gather inside the Hartwigs’ small home on this day in late February to welcome the newest grandchild. They’ve planned a barbecue, hotdogs for the little ones with cake for dessert. All to celebrate little Gabriel.

Now as people arrive, they’re hearing about the crash, about the loss of Elisa (the Hartwigs’ daughter), and her husband and son. They’ll all have to wait another 45 minutes to hear if someone found the newborn grandson and whether he’s alive.

Since that Feb. 28 day, the question of what about the baby has drifted like a soft current above this Miller County town and communities around it. Residents here and thousands nationwide — many sending clothes, money, prayers — are desperate to find something miraculous and bonding out of something so tragic.

They find it in Gabriel Wilcox himself, now-orphaned, 2 months old and healthy, living with the Hartwigs.

Day started with such hope

“Everybody kind of feels a responsibility to do what they can,” says Shayla Viele, an adviser at nearby Columbia College-Lake of the Ozarks, where a student group continues to collect donations for Gabriel. “You can’t help but think of the baby.”

And as with all new life, Gabriel’s had started with such hope.

The morning of the crash, Elisa Wilcox woke up early. Just 30 hours before, she had given birth to Gabriel, and now she couldn’t sleep. Today they would get to take their baby home.

From her hospital room, she updated her Facebook page at 4:14 am.

Wide awake wishing we was home.

Later that day, after the newborn had been circumcised and Elisa dressed him in a baby blue outfit with embroidered puppies on the front, husband Marty steered the couple’s maroon 2008 Pontiac G6 toward her parents’ home in Barnett. The two parents in front, seat belts fastened, and their boys in back in car seats.

Three-year-old Marty Wilcox Jr., whom most called “Junior” or “Monkey” — the nickname his mom gave him soon after he was born because he would jerk his arms and legs around like monkeys do — was so happy to have his new baby brother finally here.

There in the car, headed to what promised to be lots of marveling at the Hartwigs’ fifth grandchild, was the family Elisa always wanted.

She met Marty on the Internet when she was 18. He was 27. Her parents shake their heads and smile now when they recall the first time they met the man they’d come to love like their own son.

He showed up at the Russellville restaurant that Brad and Angela Hartwig managed at the time. Wearing all black, his arms lathered in tattoos, Marty had an 18-inch mohawk, which Brad Hartwig describes by holding his hand high above his own head to show how tall the hair stood. The man who’d just started dating their daughter also had 37 piercings in his face. “Yes, 37,” Angela says now, smiling. Small chains looped from one hole to another across parts of his face.

Marty asked Angela that day nine years ago if she was going to allow him to date her daughter.

“Yeah,” she told him. “As long as the next time I see you, those things in your face are gone.” (Indeed, she says now, they were soon gone.)

When Angela saw Elisa with Marty, she could see the bond, the undeniable connection. It was her daughter’s first — and only — love. Before long, Marty became a crucial part of the family.

Professionally, he would work his way from up from cook to a supervisor at the nearby McDonalds in Eldon where the young family lived. “He made us so proud of him,” Angela says, her eyes welling with tears.

Family was at center of lives

The young couple wasn’t rich, but that didn’t matter. They had family. Marty had children from a previous relationship. And Elisa had a sister and two brothers — not counting the three cousins that Angela and Brad (Elisa’s stepfather) took in when Angela’s sister slipped into a coma in 2005. Not to mention all the extended family.

Elisa was used to family always being around. Parties and barbecues drew dozens of relatives, and her parents never hesitated to open their home to kids who needed one.

When Junior was born, he became Marty and Elisa’s world, the Hartwigs say. Elisa would talk to him, tell him stories of her Indian and Mexican heritage. Of family members who had passed on.

A year ago, Junior was diagnosed with a form of autism. He struggled with speech. He would often garble words and sounds instead of talk.

Brad Hartwig, who was known as Papa to his grandson, told Junior one day, “I know you know I understand you.” Hartwig’s eyes light up when he shares how his grandson responded, clear as anything, with “Oh no,” acting as though he had been caught.

The little boy also knew he had a “bubby” coming soon. His brother was due on Leap Day. Days before that, Elisa wrote her unborn child a short message on Facebook:

Dear baby boy,

You have four days left on your lease for my belly, And mommy and daddy would really like to hold you. Please make a timely move from the inside to your new room. We love you already and I would love for your brother to quit knocking on my tummy and saying hello.

On the way home

After leaving the hospital, the Wilcox family had a few stops to make, including a quick drop-in at Miller County Care and Rehabilitation Center, where Elisa was a certified medical technician. She wanted to show Gabriel off to her co-workers, who just two weeks before had showered her with gifts of clothes and diapers, baby shampoos and lotion.

“They were all just very happy that day,” says Rhonda Kurzejeski, director of nursing at center in Tuscumbia. “Everyone was oohing and ahhing, and we were holding the baby.”

Their final destination was to be the Hartwigs.

Westbound on Missouri 52, near Brown Road, just before the Wilcox family would round a slight curve, an eastbound tan Toyota Avalon crossed the center line and smashed into them.

Trooper Brian Lawler, who responded to the scene, says the cars collided with such force that you couldn’t make out the front end of either one.

“This crash was pretty much as head-on as you can get,” says Lawler. “It was about six inches from being totally head-on.”

The Hartwigs would later discover that the young woman driving the Avalon worked with their daughter at the nursing home. Elisa had the driver’s name on a list of people she still needed to write a thank-you to for the recent baby shower at work. The 19-year-old, a nurse’s aide with a young daughter at home, was headed to work at the time of the crash.

It took rescue crews about 20 minutes to extricate the teen from the Toyota Avalon. She was hospitalized for several weeks and reportedly is now recovering.

No charges have been filed. The patrol’s major crash team is still investigating and waiting on phone records for the 19-year-old.

She did not respond to an electronic message for comment.

Elisa and Marty were pronounced dead at the scene. The Hartwigs have been told since the crash that Junior immediately tried to get his parents’ attention before rescue crews arrived.

Angela’s voice breaks as she describes what she was told about her oldest grandchild.

“He said, ‘Wake up, Daddy. Wake up, Mommy?’”

The extent of Junior’s injuries couldn’t be seen. Many were internal, likely from the impact of the crash.

The boy who loved Disney’s “Cars” and was just starting to immerse himself in Pixar’s “Toy Story,” died on the way to the hospital.

Angela, who Junior called Nana, saw her grandson one last time at the hospital. She kissed him and said good-bye.

“I told him I loved him, and I would see him again one day,” Angela says.

Their glimmer of hope

As for Gabriel, they finally got word about his whereabouts. When the Miller County coroner first spoke to Brad Hartwig on the phone, he didn’t know that Junior’s newborn brother had been in the car. When rescue crews got there, Gabriel was still fastened tightly in the back seat.

“By the time I got there, they’d already transported the baby,” Callahan said Thursday.

The next time he talked to Hartwig that afternoon, he told the grandfather that crews had gotten to the newborn.

“Go to the hospital.”

The infant barely got a bump or bruise from the crash that took his mom and dad and brother. In fact, he had one tiny, faint scratch above his right eye, but that could have come from the birth. No one knows.

He did suffer a broken clavicle during his birth, but that has healed on its own.

Several hours after the crash, the Hartwigs were taking their grandbaby home. The couple says the doctor knew they wouldn’t leave him, that they wanted — even needed — to cling to him. So it was OK to take him home.

Not for the celebration they’d planned, but for family to hug the baby they knew Elisa and Marty were so excited to have.

For Angela, one of the toughest things she had to do that day was dress her 2-day-old grandson in the same baby blue outfit with embroidered puppies on front that her daughter had carefully put on him earlier that day.

Angela Hartwig, 46, cradles Gabriel in one arm, using the other to steady a bottle. Her husband leans over and moves a finger across the baby’s forehead. Sometimes the grandparents just sit and watch him.

As he sleeps. As he wiggles on his back. Or gives a half-smirk, half-smile.

They call him their miracle. A glimmer of hope after agony so extreme that it’s dropped them to their knees many times.

“He’s the reason I go on,” Angela says. “He keeps me from hurting so bad. Our lives were completely ripped apart.”

Brad, 49, picks up his wife’s thought: “Just seeing him smile, looking at him, brings us out of our depression.”

And so often, they see their daughter in his eyes, his facial expressions. When he holds his head up, or focuses his eyes on something or someone, Angela thinks back to when Elisa was a baby. When she did those things.

Or sometimes they glimpse their son-in-law in Gabriel. Like last week, when the baby fussed after a feeding. Brad looked down at the tiny face and hollered out: “Oh, that was Marty. I could see Marty’s expression.”

They know people hear their story and feel profound sadness. Strangers see Angela in the store, know who she is and stuff a few dollars in her pocket, or give her their phone number, asking her to call when she needs something. She knows they mean it.

The Hartwigs, who are still working to pay off the funeral for the three, want people to know that though the grief feels overwhelming at times, they also feel so blessed. Blessed with the children they’ve had, the grandchildren who always come to Nana and Papa’s house to play and have fun. Now they have Gabriel.

And the constant examples of the kindness of others. You can’t forget that, Angela says.

An outpouring of support

In so many ways, this town and the small communities around it believe they’ve adopted this baby. He belongs to all of them.

Walmart gave the Hartwigs a crib. McDonald’s, where Marty Wilcox worked, held a pancake dinner last month with all proceeds going to a fund for Gabriel.

A woman in Jefferson City wants the foot size of every one of the Hartwigs’ grandchildren so she can knit them slippers. Tubs of clothes are stacked in the baby’s room, the top of the closet full of diapers they know they’ll quickly go through.

At nearby Columbia College-Lake of the Ozarks, members of the Student Leaders Advocating Teacher Excellence have been gathering donations for Gabriel for several weeks and say they’re not stopping anytime soon. When news of the crash hit, a member of the group approached the adviser and wanted to know what they could do to help the Hartwigs.

“We’re collecting everything from diapers to clothes, soap, gift cards, everything for this family,” said Melody Cochran, president of SLATE. “Until they don’t need anymore help, we will do whatever we can, as much as we can for them.”

Angela says she didn’t know so many kind people still lived in the world. Gestures big and small touch her, like the gift of a green stuffed frog that sits in Gabriel’s crib. It used to belong to a brother and sister in Pennsylvania. They told their mom to send it to the baby who lost his family. Along with the frog were two $5 bills — one from the boy’s piggy bank, the other from the girl’s.

The Hartwigs save everything for their newest grandson: articles about the crash, some published locally, others nationally; letters from strangers. Angela also put away the baby blue outfit Elisa put on Gabriel that last morning in the hospital.

She and Brad take photos and write in a journal on the computer. One day they’ll present it all to Gabriel.

“He’ll know his mom and daddy,” Brad says. “We’ll tell him about them every day.”

Already, Angela — who would talk to her daughter constantly — sits and talks to Gabriel. Just as Elisa would talk to Junior.

She tells him how sweet his mother was. How kind. And how she couldn’t wait for him to be born.

“I know your mom wants to be here with you,” she tells her grandson through tears. “Since she can’t, I’m going to do what I can to make you happy.”

Already, the other grandkids are getting a little jealous of Gabriel. They’re not used to having a baby taking up Nana and Papa’s time.

But the Hartwigs work through it, grateful that as Gabriel grows up he’ll have cousins close in age who are like his brothers and sisters.

“We tell the grandkids that he was a gift from Lisa,” Angela says, rocking a sleepy Gabriel gently from side to side. “That Lisa gave him to us, so we all have to take care of him.”

Brad reaches over and pats his wife’s back. Together, they will raise yet another child. Their little Gabriel.


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