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We have freedom, but we’re not independent

LaReeca Rucker

I have been a journalist for 25 years. In fact, this year marks my 25th year of being in the journalism industry in some area, starting in college at a local radio station and later as a paid intern at a newspaper. This also marks the 20th year of my college graduation.

In the last 25 years, I have covered a variety of stories, including homicides, fires and car accidents. I was good at establishing trustworthy relationships with law enforcement, but I have never really enjoyed covering spot news.

It’s not fun to call the family or friends of someone who died, tell them you’re writing a story about their son or daughter who was killed in a car accident, and ask them for comments about that person to include in the story. It’s not fun arriving at the scene of a house fire and interviewing homeowners about their loss.

It’s not fun driving up to a concrete slab where someone’s house, that has been completely destroyed by a tornado, once sat and asking them to tell you what happened. Or interviewing neighbors about gang members who are terrorizing their neighborhoods. But it is sometimes part of the job.

Let’s eliminate the idea that work is supposed to be fun. Covering spot news is emotionally challenging.

I have done it throughout North Mississippi while working at newspapers. And for four years, half of my reporting beat was covering law enforcement in two municipalities in the greater Jackson metro area.

It’s been a while since I covered spot news on a regular basis. The last two stories I recall writing that fit the category were about a Tougaloo student who died in a car accident and an Oxford family whose home burned. But based on a recent incident, I’ve decided that if you’re a reporter who stops covering spot news, the universe may bring spot news to you.

The house I live in is brick, and the walls must be pretty thick, because I rarely hear strong winds, thunder or stormy weather outside. I do hear traffic on the road that runs in front of my house. Sometimes, 18-wheelers pass by, and their mufflers make loud noises.

I have often thought it’s possible that one of the drivers traveling on it could lose control of their vehicle and drive off the road into my house, even though it’s pretty far off the road.

But that’s crazy thinking, right?

In the early morning of July 5, I was awakened by a thumping sound outside. I assumed it was the muffler of one of the 18-wheelers, and I went back to sleep. A couple of hours later, I woke up when I heard someone knocking at my door.

First, let me pause and say, that when I first awaken, I’m walking, and I may be talking, but I’m still technically asleep for a little while.

Through the window, I could see someone at my backdoor gently knocking. Before I could get dressed and answer the door, the person began walking in my backyard to the woods in the distance. I could see her on the edge of the property taking a peek into the thickly wooded area.

In a hazy state, I remembered that when I moved into the house, I was told a woman who owned part of the wooded property behind my house would probably stop by unannounced to check on her property occasionally. Assuming it was her, I got dressed and walked into the living room to look out the window – a morning ritual.

Still half asleep, I was disgusted when I noticed trash strewn all over my front yard. I suddenly remembered that I had put three trash bags of garbage under my carport the night before, and one of the animals from the woods must have gotten into the trash and dragged the bag, strewing it all over my lawn.

Feeling the need to quickly rectify the situation before my neighbors concluded I was cool with having a trash-filled yard, I retrieved a box of garbage bags from my kitchen so I could begin cleaning up the trash from my carport and my front yard.

But as I walked out my backdoor, I noticed that the garbage bags were where I had left them unopened. When I walked a few steps further, I saw the person in my backyard begin walking from the woods toward me. As she moved closer, she stretched out her arms, and said, “I need help,” repeatedly.

Unsure what was happening or what to do, I walked toward her and asked her to come inside. I could see that both of her eyes were swollen shut, she had cuts and bruises on her arms and legs, and she was crying.

She needed help with her injuries, so I gathered towels for her and led her to the bathroom. I walked outside a minute, debating what to do, and as I stepped onto the front lawn, I panned to the right of my house and saw a vehicle standing on its side near a creek that divides my house from my neighbor’s.

The vehicle looked surreal, like a Hot Wheels car that a child had finished playing with and left behind. When I closely inspected the trash covering my yard, I realized it was mostly parts of the vehicle that had come off when it crashed into various trees before coming to a standstill. There were bumper, fender and other parts of the car scattered for yards from my driveway to other side of my lawn. Several articles of clothing hung high in one of the trees. Other items included music CDs, a suitcase, and the car’s license plate.

When I went back inside, the young woman was calling me from the bathroom, asking me to help her. She decided she might be more severely injured than she had originally thought, and she asked me to call 9-1-1.

As I sat with her, it was obvious that the impact of the crash had affected her memory. She wasn’t sure where she was or how she had gotten there, and I could tell the memory loss terrified her. She held out her hand and asked me to pray with her that no one else had been in the car because she couldn’t remember if she had been traveling alone.

This was a scary thought for both of us, because if someone else had been in the car with her, I knew – based on the position of the car – there was nothing I could physically do to help them at that point, and so we both hoped and prayed the ambulance would arrive as quickly as possible. Time moves slowly when you’re waiting on an ambulance.

Knowing the paramedics were on their way, I tried to talk with her and keep her calm until they arrived. She told me she was a student in her early 20s. I asked her major. She said she was studying to work in the health field.

She remembered that she should probably call her parents, so she took my phone and began dialing their number. Unsuccessful on the first attempt, she then called her sister, and when she heard a familiar voice, she began to cry, revealing how scared she truly was.

The ambulance arrived along with two sheriff’s deputies. The paramedics came inside, and the deputies examined the car wreckage outside. I immediately went outside and told them she wasn’t sure whether or not there were any passengers in the car with her, so they would make checking a priority. They determined she was the only person in the vehicle.

The paramedics placed a brace around her neck and led her outside to a stretcher. As they put her on it and transported her to the local hospital, the deputies stuck around to wait for the wrecking company to arrive and remove the vehicle from the property.

Since I’ve never had a car accident happen in my front yard before, I was unaware whether or not I should clean up the debris in my yard. They told me the wrecking company would do it.

I then noticed a high mark where bark was missing on one of the tall trees. There were also two deep holes in the ground. The tree that the vehicle rested against had also been struck pretty high, leaving us all to believe the car must have jumped and flipped a few times before it came to a stop.

When the workers pulled the car out to tow it away, it was completely destroyed. The Nissan Altima looked like a smart car. The passenger side was complete smashed in. The wrecking service employees said one of the tires had landed yards away on my neighbor’s lawn . That means it sailed across the creek before rolling and landing there.

Since the accident, the young woman’s parents have come to my house twice to thank me for helping her. Her mother said she was lucky it happened at my house; she could have been wandering around in the wilderness. My response has been, “I’m just so glad she’s OK.” It’s terrifying to think what would have happened if I had walked outside July 5 and discovered a completely different scenario.

I asked for a report about how she’s doing. I was told she had no major broken bones. Her parents said one of her lungs was partially punctured. I believe they said she broke or bruised a rib. Her ACL was torn. But this strong girl will live, and she’ll be OK. I’m glad this is a spot news story with a good ending.

I told her parents my family has concluded that the universe has big plans for her. She is either lucky, or it’s a miracle she survived. And I’d like to think that she’ll go on to help others in her chosen field now that she has the rest of her life to live.

We’re still not sure how she got out of the vehicle or if she was thrown from it. Her mother said she recalled kicking something, so that may have been her method of escape. Based on my neighbor’s recollection of when he heard the crash, there was a two-hour period before she knocked on my door around 7 a.m.

Wearing a blue T-shirt with the words “Red, White and Blue” on it, I later found a matching headband with stars hanging from a tree limb. I assume it’s one she lost during the crash.

The incident made me reflect on the July 4 holiday and think about how we are all connected, and we all need each other. There have been times when I had vehicle issues, and it wasn’t five minutes until a stranger approached me offering help. And I’ve been helped by other kind souls in many different ways.

I think generosity is one of the interwoven values of Mississippi culture. And while you may find it elsewhere in the world, you may not find it as abundantly and as selflessly as you do here.

It’s a comforting thought to know that we can depend on the kindness of strangers. And that while we have freedom, we’re not independent.


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