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The perfect accident: Families form lifelong bonds after accident 12 years ago left EMT severely injured

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FORGIVENESS — For the 12th-year anniversary of the wreck, Alexis Keplinger and Chuck Mooney donned humorous T-shirts at the site of the accident.

When a 16-year-old Western High School student accidentally hit an EMT with her car 12 years ago, leaving him severely injured, she didn’t know such a tragedy would have a silver lining.

That silver lining came in the form of unique friendships and bonds that Alexis Keplinger formed with the victim, Chuck Mooney, and his family in the years since the accident. Over those years, the two families have become intertwined, spending vacations together, attending each other’s sporting events, weddings, and even, for a time, living together.

The accident

Dec. 14, 2007, was another normal morning for Keplinger. That Friday at 7 a.m., the WHS sophomore was on her way to school when, in an instant, everything changed. There had been a traffic accident along Ind. 26 and 350 West, but no first responders had arrived yet – aside from Mooney.

Mooney had just finished a 12-hour shift at then-Howard Regional Health System as an EMT. He was on his way home when he saw the accident. Mooney, as required by law, stopped to assist. The last thing he remembered was standing on the side of the road, talking to those involved in the accident. The rest was a blur.

It was dark, and Keplinger didn’t see Mooney on the side of the road. In her blue 2007 Toyota, she struck him. The impact sent him flying out of his shoes, breaking both of his legs, crashing into the Toyota’s windshield, and landing 30 yards down the highway. The crunch of Mooney hitting the windshield was a sound Keplinger never forgot.

“I just remember following whoever was in front of me. I don’t remember seeing him, but I do remember the impact, hitting the brakes. I know I’ll never forget, A, the crunch of the car and, B, just watching him come off the car,” Keplinger said.

Mooney was taken by ambulance to then-Howard Regional Health System, and Keplinger was taken to then-St. Joseph Hospital. She was released that night with non-life-threatening injuries, and Mooney was airlifted to Methodist Hospital.

That night, Keplinger was back at home, and her mother was vacuuming shards of glass out of her face and hair. She was spitting up blood, trying to explain what happened, and in a state of shock. It was at that time when the family got a call from a woman who identified herself as Teresa Mooney, the wife of the man who was hit on the side of the road. The call caused Keplinger to freeze. She knew the woman likely was angry and looking to lash out.

When her father got off the phone with Teresa, he informed his daughter that they were going to go to Methodist Hospital where Mooney was undergoing emergency surgery. They were unsure at that time if he would make it.

“I looked at him and said ‘no’ because normal people – I’ll say normal because [the Mooneys] are not normal in a good way – would be like, ‘You hit my husband. How dare you,’ and have that natural animosity toward someone who hurt somebody. So my natural reaction was, ‘Nope. I’ll sit here. You guys can go,’” Keplinger said.

Her dad looked at Keplinger and told her that she may have just killed a man. She was going.

When they arrived at Methodist Hospital and Teresa hugged Keplinger instead of slapping her, as Keplinger expected, Keplinger broke down.

“That’s when I just lost it because who does that? I could have potentially, even at that time, killed her husband,” she said.

Teresa never set out to make Keplinger feel worse. When she heard her husband was struck by another motorist, Teresa quickly found out who it was so she could call her.

“I just really wanted to see if she was alive. I just didn’t know, but I felt, ‘What if this was my child (who hit someone)?’ I mean, I couldn’t imagine,” said Teresa who had three children, Zac, 15; Faith, 11; and Hannah, 10. “It just kept going through my mind, ‘What would Christ do?’ No one intends to do that. It’s not like she set out that day to do it. I wanted her, at that moment, to know whatever was going to happen, it was going to be OK.”

Road to recovery

Doctors initially were going to amputate one of Mooney’s legs, but they were able to save it. Still, it would be a long road ahead for him. He was on a ventilator for days and in a medicated fog, he said, for at least a month. One night when he was back at home recovering, he realized the woman who hit him had been hanging around his house.

He was happy to have her. As friends and family shuffled in and out in those coming days, eyebrows raised.

“People would say, ‘That’s really weird. How can you do that? How can you live with that? How can you accept that?’” Mooney said. “You know what? There’s really nothing to accept. To me, it goes back to being a Christian. I was forgiven. How can I not forgive her? So it’s pretty simple to me.”

It also went back to a saying he and Teresa preached to their kids: accidents happen.

“Our kids grew up, and we always said, when things happened at the house – something got broke, something got spilled – accidents happen. And when she came over and sat there beside me, I just told her, ‘I would never hate you for this because accidents happen,’” he said.

The relationship was the hardest for the family’s oldest child, Zac, who was a grade below Keplinger at Western High School. Teresa said he was struggling to deal with the new family dynamics. Two days before the accident, Mooney had finished nursing classes to be an RN. Instead of celebrating, the family now was wondering whether he would ever walk again, let alone be able to use his degree.

When Keplinger would see Zac at school, she’d stop him and ask how his dad was doing. It would make Zac mad.

“He would come home and be mad, and I’d be like, ‘She’s just trying to find out,’” said Teresa. “It was a lot of healing. You’ve taken a man’s dad, and now he’s not going to be running next to you. He’s not going to be skiing. He’s not going to be doing these things, and on top of that, Zac’s taking out the trash for me, shoveling the sidewalk. But they became very good friends.”

The change for Zac came after he saw people at school mistreating Keplinger. Students around her would pretend to walk as though they had broken legs and say cruel things to her. He saw Keplinger was dealing with a lot of heartache too, and he opened up to her.

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ACCIDENT — (Clockwise from top left) The damage to Alexis Keplinger’s car shows where Chuck Mooney’s body hit. Mooney recovers at Methodist Hospital. Mooney returns home from the hospital.

It wasn’t easy for Teresa, either. Having to take time off work to care for Mooney, she eventually lost her job. The Mooneys told Keplinger’s family early on that they would not sue. Instead, they had fund raisers. The following spring, their church held a motorcycle ride, and Keplinger rode on the back of one motorcycle. On the back of another, to the dismay of Teresa, was Mooney with two large casts on his legs.

The ride raised over $800, and 41 bikes participated.

In August 2008, Mooney was able to go back to work part-time in an education capacity, but he was still undergoing therapy three days a week.

Families combine

Throughout Mooney’s recovery, and to this day, the Keplingers remained a constant. In the years since, Keplinger gained three siblings and two great friends, she said. Teresa and Mooney gained a daughter, and after Keplinger got married and had a child, they gained a son and grandson.

“I don’t know that we ever started it thinking we’d get the relationship we do have now, but we just consider it a blessing. It just grew,” said Teresa.

The families have used humor to help them heal over the years. When people ask how they met, they’re known to say, “Oh, by accident,” or, “We just ran into each other.”

“As strange as it is, pretty quickly we tried to have a lot of fun with it. I know that sounds really odd, but humor helps a lot of the healing,” Teresa said.

That same humor continued as the families commemorated the 12th anniversary since the accident. The families returned to the site of the crash, donning humorous T-shirts for a photoshoot. In the family shoot, Mooney’s daughters wore “Sister from another mister” T-shirts, while Keplinger wore a T-shirt that read “Sister that hit your mister.”

In a shoot with just Mooney and Keplinger, they wore T-shirts with arrows pointing at each other that donned their favorite phrases: “We met by accident” and “We ran into each other.”

Keplinger said she’s grateful to have met people who, despite the circumstances, welcomed her into their home with open arms. Mooney, who now is a nurse at Community Howard Regional Health, still deals with pain and complications from the accident. This month, he was seeing a specialist to determine whether he would need another surgery.

Despite it all, Mooney encouraged others to always forgive.

“Accidents happen, and when they do, people can be forgiven. If you don’t, then you have to live the rest of your life with that hatred, and it’s not really worth it. As a Christian, I am forgiven, and I feel very good that I have forgiven,” Mooney said. “We both have to live with this the rest of our lives, but you can go about it two ways: dwell on it or move forward. We decided a long time ago that we were going to move forward.”