One of our most viewed digital stories this year was titled, "Paraplegic Man Saves Another Man's Life; You Can Help Say Thanks." The story was a dramatic one that took place in Mebane, NC. Here's the original story. Don't miss the update at the end of the post.
Our original story 4/15/2014
It was 4:30 in the morning and Erik Fugunt was awake. He's a mechanic and he'd been working on a boat in the garage. He took a break, took his earbuds out, and went to take out the trash. That's when he heard it... a sound that you never ever want to hear. Craaaash. Actually, he describes it this way: "Crash, crunch smash, smash, patoosh!"
This wasn't just any fender bender, Erik could tell. "You know rally car racing? When they wreck, when they take a tumble? It's a distinct, horrible smash, like someone rattling around like a ping-pong ball. That's what I heard."
Erik knows what it's like to have an accident and need help. He was severely injured four years ago. He was on his motorcycle and was in the middle of the last turn before arriving at his own home when he hit some debris in the road. He spun out, hit a tree at full speed, and is now paralyzed.
And so when he heard this horrific sound of another accident, he got in his van and took off.
Erik Fugunt drove around for a bit, but his headlights didn't reveal anything out of the ordinary. He went out to the main road, back and forth, his eyes sweeping the surface and the sides of the road, looking for something, anything, out of place. "I came up to a bridge, where there's a pretty sharp turn. I knew there was a pretty high probability of an accident at that location," he remembers.
His eyes scanned the area, but still he didn't see much. And then, finally he saw one small clue. A road sign that was bent. He was sure it hadn't been damaged the day before.
Erik got out of his van and started hollering. Nothing. He hollered some more. Still nothing.
He called 9-1-1. Authorities arrived, and looked around a bit. They didn't see anything.
The ambulance left, but Erik was adamant. Finally, an officer walked down the embankment and into the woods. The vehicle was barely visible. It was far, far from the road, across a creek bed, in the brush. The car was demolished, but a young man was inside and he was alive.
"He is definitely heaven sent." That's how Brandon Jeffries, 20, describes Erik Fugunt's determination to stay that morning. Brandon had been driving the car that was now totaled. "It is definitely amazing," Brandon says. "If it weren't for him, I'd still be laying in the woods."
Brandon's not quite sure what caused the crash. Was it a deer? Perhaps. The family says that his car flipped "end over end" several times, which may be why there wasn't clear evidence of an accident on the road itself.
Brandon suffered a traumatic brain injury as well as severe physical trauma. His injuries caused his body to react as though he had a stroke and so he is re-learning basic functions. Brandon's been receiving treatment at UNC Hospitals and other locations. He's walking again (not jogging or skipping, he's quick to point out) but he's working on it.
Brandon wonders about Erik's tenacity that early morning. "There were houses literally 50 yards away, but [Erik] heard the crash from two miles away and came to investigate."
Erik says that the world would be a pretty bad place if neighbors didn't help each other. The men live in rural Mebane, in the country, and Erik says: "The more space you have between neighbors, the better you know 'em. I'd hate to think that somebody else wouldn't go out and search. It's your duty as a human being to go out and do it."
Brandon's dad thanked Erik, but he also thanks his van. "If he didn't have a van, I wouldn't have a son," he says. But Erik's van is 15 years old. It is specially designed to accommodate his wheelchair, but the vehicle breaks down a lot. The airbags are broken. Because he's a mechanic, Erik's been able to keep it on the road, but he has two small children and he fears for their safety.
So the people in Erik's life, behind his back at first, hatched a plan with Brandon - a plan that they hope will end in a new van. There's a nationwide contest, where four people will win a "customized wheelchair accessible vehicle." The contest is run by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, and they are looking for heroes.
The day the two families filmed this video was the first day that Erik had seen Brandon after the accident. Erik thought they would film the video with Brandon's parents, but then the car door opened and out came a young man.
Erik remembers: "He started walking up to the garage, and I thought to myself 'You have got to be kidding me.' I mean, it's pretty incredible. I am still floored, surprised that he can talk, much less walk. If you had seen how bad the wreck was, how far he flew... compound that with how long he sat there [waiting for help.] He is one lucky kid."
Brandon hopes that luck won't run out before he gets to say thank you to Erik, with a brand new van.
Erik was a finalist in the contest to win a van, but he did not win the grand prize. However, we recently got a note from Erik's mom Jacqueline. After Erik didn't win the van, she was contacted by someone who wanted to give Erik an "almost new" van. Erik, of course accepted the van, and is very grateful to have a new, safe set of wheels.