After a tragic accident, a town unites to help its devastated teens…
Sunday, May 13th, 2007
By Mitch Albom
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Injured athlete Tyler Carron, 18, leans on his father, Bruce, as he begins his recovery in Berthoud, Colo.
Where Courage Lives A small town shows its big heart after a horrific accident.
by MITCH ALBOM
Where are those lights coming from? It was late at night, and five students- two boys, three girls - were driving home from a dance. A tire went flat. They pulled over. It was a county road, with a narrow shoulder covered in snow. It was cold. It was dark. There were no streetlights.
The two boys, Tyler Carron and Nikko Landeros, were high school wrestlers- strong, confident 17-year-olds - and they laughed as they stepped out of the red Isuzu Trooper. They opened the hatch to find a jack.
Inside the car, the girls were talking, and one of them, Lindsey Ludwig, glanced back through the rear window. She saw headlights approaching.
"Oh, my God," she thought. "They're not going to stop."
Nikko Landeros (l) and Tyler Carron were always close - now they are intertwined.
Where did that car come from? Michelle Berra, a classmate of Tyler's, was also driving home that night. She too was 17. She had been at her choir teacher's house, watching a movie. Her Toyota Land Cruiser came over the crest of the hill.
For a flashing instant, she says, she saw a white shirt, but it was too sudden, too fast.
"Oh, my God," is all she remembers thinking.
Where do these kids come from? Berthoud, Colo., population 5,200, is the kind of small town that used to define America. Once a whistle stop between Denver and Fort Collins ‑ a train still rumbles through in the middle of the night ‑ there is no shopping mall, no McDonald's, few traffic lights, but lots of neighborly activity. It is the kind of place where the mayor used to coach wrestling, where folks sit on bales of hay watching baseball, where you run into the grocery store for milk and wind up staying an hour talking to friends.
[quote insert]: "Sometimes I look down and just start crying. It's sad, but we want to move on."
So it wasn't long before the whole town knew about the terrible accident on January 15 out on Larimer County Road 17. How the Toyota slammed into the two wrestlers and pinned them between the vehicles. How they were rushed to hospitals‑one by ambulance, one by helicopter.
How both boys lost their legs.
Bad news like this had become too common in Berthoud. In the last decade, 10 teenagers had been killed in driving accidents. At least this time the victims were alive.
Which meant the folks in town could do something to help.
And, oh, what they did.
Where did all those people come from? One week after the accident, 200 kids and 100 adults gathered at Berthoud High School and called everyone in the local phone book, seeking aid for the injured boys. Within hours, they'd raised $54,000.
A week later, a spaghetti dinner was held. Some 2,700 people showed up. They ate in hallways, on steps, in the gym. By the end of the night, $82,000 more had been raised.
A Comedy Night raised $15,000. At a livestock auction, a teenage girl pledged the proceeds from her prized hog to the injured boys: She fetched $35,000.
Within a month, more than 100 events had been held or scheduled. And to date, total pledges approach $450,000, according to the community group whose Web site name couldn't be more fitting: Berthoudcares.com.
"We've all been on that county road," says Martha Simmons, a Berthoud resident who, along with many others, helped spearhead the support efforts. "Any one of us could have been Nikko or Tyler or Michelle."
And so they rallied around them. At a time when more and more Americans don't know their neighbors, everyone in Berthoud seemed to know these kids. In the town coffee shop, in the town drugstore, news of the boys' progress spread quickly: They're out of intensive care. They're out of the hospital. They've got wheelchairs.
And then one night, at the state wrestling tournament a month after the accident, an announcer bellowed: "Wrestlers, clear the mats!"
"People here have chosen to hold hands rather than point fingers."
And Tyler and Nikko were rolled out to a thunderous ovation.
It was the start of a homecoming that small towns do best.
Michelle Berra, 17 (with her mom, Marina), says in some ways she wishes she'd been injured instead of her classmates.
Where does courage come from? Inside the Landeros' modest home, the two teenagers sit side by side in wheelchairs, blankets covering their severed legs. Tyler, who'd been captain of the wrestling team, is thinner, short-haired, with a quiet demeanor and a disarming grin. Nikko, who also played football, is beefier, dark-haired, boisterous. They were close before the accident; now they are intertwined.
"Without Nikko," Tyler says, "I wouldn't have someone to talk to who would understand."
"Without Tyler," Nikko says, "I'd probably still be in the hospital."
And without Berthoud, well, who knows? So many people have helped them. From the local fire, rescue and EMS units, who acted quickly and heroically, to the firm that remodeled Nikko's and Tyler's houses for wheelchair access, to the generous donors of everything from laptops to new wheelchairs.
"It's weird," Tyler says gratefully. "There are accidents all the time. I don't know why they make such a big deal out of us." Maybe because giving seems to energize the town. "It reminds us," says Dee Dee Broes, a co-founder of Berthoud Cares, "why we live here."
Berthoud's version of "paying it forward" - doing one good deed that feeds another ‑ has helped Tyler and Nikko avoid dwelling in understandable self-pity. "Sometimes," Nikko admits, "I just look down, and I don't have legs, and I start crying. It's sad. But if you want people to feel sorry for you, you're gonna be that way for the rest of your life. And that's not what we want to do."
Instead, Tyler will graduate from high school next month. He has started working with his prosthetic legs. He wants to move ahead.
And Nikko, who will return this fall for his senior year? "I want to wrestle again," he says.
His coach is planning on it.
Where does forgiveness come from? Not far from Nikko's house ‑ nothing is very far in Berthoud - Michelle Berra, the driver of the other vehicle, sits with her family at a dining room table. A smart, creative student, Michelle speaks with moist eyes and a soft voice about the night the world flipped over. She speaks about the accident. About seeing the boys so horrifically injured. About going to Nikko and hearing him say he was cold and giving him her coat. About wishing, in some ways, the injuries had happened to her instead of them.
And while she believes the crash was an unavoidable accident, she did fear the whole town would hate her and blame her.
Amazingly, that has not happened.
"People will come up and talk to me now, even if they didn't before," she says. "They make it a point to see how I'm doing."
Indeed, almost everywhere you go, townsfolk seem as concerned about Michelle as they are about Tyler and Nikko. The Berthoud Cares Web site contains a link to read about and support Michelle. Townsfolk were encouraged to write the family letters of encouragement.
"We would not still be living here if not for the Berthoud community," says Michelle's mother, Marina. "This would have driven us out."
Instead, Tyler, Nikko and Michelle are now back at high school together. Don't misunderstand. What happened was tragic. Worlds have been shattered. The boys face endless hurdles. And as this story goes to press, Michelle's court date (on two misdemeanor counts of careless driving) approaches.
So lives have been changed forever. But change can take you in two directions - dark or light. Here in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, a caring community has chosen the brighter path, to band together, to hold hands rather than point fingers. "This has taught us," Dee Dee Broes says, "that you're never really alone." And that the soothing embrace of a small town may, one day, heal its pain.
Mitch Albom on the story behind the story.
More photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
How you can help Berthoud Cares.