HEFLIN, Ala. (AP) — His wife riding beside him with their two children in safety seats in the back, John Fisher drove home toward South Carolina along a stretch of Interstate 20 covered with ruts, bumps and crumbling concrete.
Just ahead of the family, Crystal Marie Dick was heading to the other side of the Georgia line to give a friend a ride.
The pothole in front of her 1995 Toyota Camry had been fixed at least once already, and now the repair was breaking down, too. A pocket of jagged, brittle bits of concrete covered nearly half of the right lane, the slow lane.
Her Camry hit the hole, kicking a chunk into the air as the Fishers’ green Ford pickup hurtled forward at 70 mph.
The glass directly in front of Fisher’s wife exploded.
No one knows exactly how big the fragment was, but it blew a hole the size of a football through the windshield. It struck Jo Maureen Fisher in the head, sailed between her preschoolers, hit the rear window and shattered it too, flying out of the truck’s cab never to be found.
Wounded in the most random of ways, John Fisher’s 33-year-old wife died the next day. Today, he is a single dad trying to balance work with child care and all the things she used to do.
Back in Alabama, Dick is trying to go on with life too. It’s not easy when you’re a young mother and your only transportation is that old blue Camry, the one that still carries awful memories and a busted rear end from hitting a pothole at highway speed.
Dick knows she wasn’t at fault — troopers decided no one was — yet she still is haunted by the accident.
“People told me, ‘You’re the one who killed that lady?’ It hurts,” the 23-year-old said. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t texting. I wasn’t talking on the phone. I wasn’t speeding. I wasn’t doing anything but driving.”
Using federal studies, the Washington-based transportation safety advocacy group TRIP estimates the United States could save 145 lives over a decade for every $100 million spent on a variety of road safety improvements and maintenance.
The cost is high.
So is the price of letting just one pothole turn into a killer.
Jo Maureen Cavanaugh and John Fisher went on their first date in January 2000, the year after she graduated from Elon University in North Carolina. They ate at an Applebee’s and were engaged a few months later.
A cousin of hers was getting married in New Orleans last March, so the family packed up their Ford F-150 for the 13-hour drive across five states. The ceremony finished, they headed back toward Goose Creek, S.C., near Charleston.
There are a few different ways to drive from New Orleans to Charleston; the Fishers chose I-20, which crosses Alabama from Mississippi before leading into Georgia and South Carolina.
On the morning of March 15, the family drove eastward out of Birmingham into construction zones that have slowed traffic for years. They crossed Lake Logan Martin, passed the Talladega Superspeedway and went through Oxford, the last city of any size before the Georgia line.
Only a few miles before the interstate smooths out in Georgia, John Fisher came upon a section so riddled with pits and patches that drivers turn up the radio to drown out the roar of the road.
The 210 milepost was just ahead. More than 33,000 vehicles pass it daily on average.
Dick, who had asked her boyfriend to watch her four sons while she made the 40-minute drive to Carrollton, Ga., to pick up her friend, took the entrance ramp to I-20 east and found herself in the right-hand lane, behind a slow truck.
It’s not clear how long the Fisher family was behind her, or how far back they were.
Dick checked her rearview mirror and swiveled her head to check the Camry’s blind spot, then began easing into the lane on her left.
“Just when I went to pull out it went ‘boom!'” Dick said. “I didn’t know if my motor had fallen out or what.”
An investigation by Alabama state troopers determined Dick’s right rear wheel struck the pothole. She said she never had a chance to avoid the rocky depression, and couldn’t have stopped in time either. Troopers didn’t issue any tickets.
Photos released by the Alabama Department of Transportation under an open records request filed by The Associated Press show the hole had been patched at least once before the accident. The new concrete was a different color than the older road and it too was crumbling, like the aged pavement around it. The department doesn’t know how long the pothole had been there.
Shocked by what sounded like a cannon going off behind her, Dick looked in her mirrors and saw Fisher’s green pickup swerving all over. She also knew right away that something was seriously wrong with her car and pulled to the right into the emergency lane. Fisher pulled in right behind her, panicked.
“He got out and was waving his arms, like he was trying to get help,” she said.
Dick’s right rear tire was flat, and the rim of the wheel was badly bent from hitting the pothole. Confused at first, Dick saw the huge hole in Fisher’s windshield, directly in front of the passenger seat where his wife was sitting.
Dick realized something terrible had happened and dialed 911.
Jo Maureen Fisher was bleeding. Her 7-month-old daughter Ella was covered with glass from the blown-out windshield and 4-year-old Thomas was asking about his mother, but neither was injured. Amazingly, the concrete missile passed directly between them and out the truck’s back window without touching either child.
A trooper arrived, and an ambulance. With no one else to help, Dick said, John Fisher asked her to go to the hospital with him to watch the kids, but troopers wouldn’t let her because she had to give a statement. Jo Maureen Fisher was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Birmingham, where she died the next day.
Dick said she and Fisher spoke by phone after Jo Maureen died. He told her about the funeral arrangements for his wife, but Dick didn’t have anyone to watch her kids, and she lacked money for the trip to South Carolina.
“He just thanked me for stopping and helping him,” she said. “He never blamed me or anything. He’s a good, Christian man.”
Troopers determined both Fisher and Dick were driving the speed limit, and neither was at fault. The condition of the road contributed to the accident, the official report said.
The federal government doesn’t keep statistics on how many accidents and deaths are caused by road maintenance problems, said Derrell Lyles, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. But such accidents are extremely rare in Alabama.
Of 123,740 wrecks that occurred in the state last year, state trooper reports show that only 33 were on roads with ruts, holes or bumps, according to an analysis performed for the AP by the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama. No one died in any of those 33 crashes, and no injuries were blamed on road conditions, the study showed.
John Fisher’s attorney said his client still isn’t up to talking about the accident, but the Fishers described their relationship in public Facebook postings. His father, Charles Fisher, said Dick did nothing wrong and wasn’t to blame for what happened to his daughter-in-law.
“It was the state of Alabama’s fault for not maintaining their roads,” he said. “It was a terrible thing, and we will never get over it.”
Tony Harris, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Transportation, said roads are constantly under repair, but the pothole that caused Fisher’s death clearly needed work. It was filled with a temporary asphalt patch within hours of the accident and fully repaired a couple weeks later, he said.
The state also lowered the speed limit on a 30-mile portion of I-20 from 70 mph to 55 mph three days after the accident, and it remains 55.
Cleburne County Coroner Rudy Rooks said no more fatalities related to road conditions have occurred since the speed limit dropped. But the roadway has been dotted with holes for years, he said, and nothing is likely to change soon.
“This is Alabama. We’re about 20 years behind on most everything,” Rooks said. “Alabama road maintenance is worse than (in) surrounding states. It comes down to tax dollars, and they’re just not there.”
Dick has given up on the interstate. She says she’ll never again drive on that part of the road, partly because of the danger and partly because of the memories. The 15-year-old Camry is a constant reminder of what happened that day, but she can’t afford anything else. She couldn’t have afforded a new rim and tire without help from a friend.
Mostly, Dick feels terrible for John Fisher and his two kids, a young family left without a mother.
“Everything was a mess,” she said, “and it could have all been prevented if they’d have just fixed it.”
The state is resurfacing parts of I-20, with a clean, smooth surface now covering stretches of the eastbound lanes from Alabama to Georgia.
Crews are still several miles from reaching the spot where a pothole killed John Fisher’s wife.