An ‘Accidental’ Accident?

american-heros-ftrOn March 28, 2012, as Brad Ray, daughter Gabby (18) and son Austyn (16) drove home from the courthouse in Ohio even the bright sunshine couldn’t lighten their mood.  They’d just heard the judge order Austyn to perform 16 hours’ of community service for punching a classmate.  The sentence could have been worse, but this was just another reminder of their troubles.

Brad (37), and his wife, Jaime (36), had recently been released from prison after serving several years for growing marijuana.  The family was back together but Brad couldn’t find regular work.  Austyn was frequently in fights, and his grades were dismal.  Gabby, who’d given birth while her parents were in prison, struggled with being a single mother while still at school.  Now they were running late to pick up Jaime.

Hearing a bang as they rounded a sharp bend, they came upon an horrific crash.  Brad slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his car.  The little black car he saw was crushed but the driver had managed to get out and was shouting that his friend was trapped inside.  Thinking the driver must be dead, Brad ordered Gabby and Austyn to keep away but they followed him.

Inside, Matt Sterling, dazed and bleeding, was struggling against the crushed driver’s door.  He’d been en route to the restaurant he ran with his wife.  Even at 6’ 2” and big with it, Matt couldn’t move the door.  “It’s okay, we’ll get you out,” Brad said as he checked the passenger door but it was also jammed.   Flames started to spread under the car and Brad knew it was now or never.

A former amateur boxer, Brad pulled on the door with all his might until it finally gave a bit and he could wedge his body in to force it open.  Gabby and Austyn scrambled in, grabbing Matt’s clothes and dragging him out and supported by them, Matt stumbled to safety. Brad followed just as flames engulfed the whole vehicle.  “Even together, those two kids aren’t my size,” says Matt, 49, his voice cracking as he later remembered how they’d saved his life.

The whole event made Brad consider life, death and fate.  Confused as to how to put things right after leaving prison, Brad said “I prayed for a chance to prove I’d changed and was a good person” and, with hindsight, wondered if the rescue might have been just that?

The downward spiral for Brad and his family began in 2005 after the death of his grandfather, who’d been like a father to him.  He started self-medicating with alcohol, then drugs and as his home-improvement business began to fail, Brad started growing marijuana in his basement to make ends meet.  One August morning in 2007, the Police arrested him and Jaime and the family were front-page news in Ohio.

With both parents serving prison sentences, the kids bounced between family members.  Meanwhile, Brad and Jaime tried to hold their marriage together through handwritten letters and three 15-minute phone calls each year.  “I had lost everything,” Brad says. “My only goal in prison was to rebuild myself and be the person my children needed me to be.”

After their release, Brad and Jaime found nobody wanted to employ them.  Every day, Brad battled to stay sober and says, “I had to wake up each morning and say, ‘Today I am going to make some good happen,’ ”

As local news reports chronicled their heroic actions, Brad noticed that people who’d previously shunned him now shook his hand and thanked him.  Austyn realised teachers and kids at school saw him in a new light, showing him respect and he began caring about his grades.  He said, “I realised I finally had a dad I could be proud of.”  An unlikely friendship blossomed between Brad’s and Matt’s families, leading to Jaime getting a job in Matt’s restaurant and, when Gabby graduated from high school with honours, the Sterlings’ gift to her was a fully catered party.

“Being able to call Matt a friend has been huge,” Brad says, “A positive role model has been sent back into my life.”

Brad still hasn’t landed a full-time job, but he’s picking up steady work.  He’s used his new-found status to pursue his long held dream—starting a boxing club at a local gym that, although running on a shoestring budget, allows him to give confidence and hope to children from difficult backgrounds.  Brad says, “This helps them, but not half as much as it helps me.  When I’m here, I’m not an ex-con, I’m their coach.”

Although Brad, Gabby, and Austyn received “Certificates of Heroism” from the City of Fostoria, Ohio and official recognition from the Wood County Sheriff Department they say it’s the gold “guardian angel” pendants that Matt gave each of them that they treasure.

“It may sound strange to say I’m glad this happened, but it’s how I feel,” Matt says. “You can only conclude that what happened that day was meant to change lives for the better.”

Brad’s now a firm believer that prayers are answered in unexpected ways, saying “We weren’t late on the day of the crash, we were on God’s time. We were exactly where we were supposed to be, when we were supposed to be there.”

What could have been so very tragic turned out to bring blessings to everyone involved; isn’t that wonderful?  Have you a story to share telling how your life changed unexpectedly?  If so, please share as I’d love to hear it.