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Buckle Up For Nora

September 13, 2013
Photo: Nora Beaudette

“We had no idea that in the few minutes it took to unbuckle Nora from her car seat, our lives could change forever.”

My name is Ed Beaudette and I live in Nevada City, California. Ten years ago I suffered an unimaginable loss when my 9-month-old daughter, Nora, died in a car crash.

Nora was a beautiful baby girl. She had a wonderful personality and was always very happy. She would smile and laugh almost all the time. The only exception was when Nora was in her car seat. She never liked being confined to such a small space; her personality was just too big. Right before the accident, Nora learned to stand on her own for the first time. She was so proud of her accomplishment, as of course, were her delighted parents.

On July 20, 2003, Nora’s mother, Heidi, and I were travelling with Nora on our way home from a family vacation in Canada. It was the last leg of our journey that included three flights earlier in the day. It was the middle of the afternoon and we were still about an hour away from home. The sun was beating down on us and we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Yet somehow we were still moving at about 50 miles per hour, under the speed limit. I had just said to Heidi a few minutes earlier that I needed to stop soon to get some coffee. I was really tired and needed some caffeine.

Nora was in the back in her car seat, uncomfortable and crying. She had been crying since we got on the road. It was a long day for her and it was hot in the sun. I asked Heidi if she would take off some of Nora’s clothes to help cool her down. I thought sitting in her diaper might make Nora a little more comfortable. Nerves were on edge from the cumulative challenges.

Heidi climbed into the back seat to unbuckle Nora. She had no idea that I was so close to falling asleep. I didn’t either. My eyes shut briefly and in those few seconds, the car drifted to the side of the road. The next thing I remember is waking up as we hit the shoulder.

We were on Highway 89 a few miles from Truckee, California, which is right over the border from Nevada. The terrain is very rocky as the road cuts through the Sierra Mountains. The shoulder was only about a foot wide and when the car drifted, our right tire went over the edge, which was about 15 feet down. 

I remember getting the truck between two trees as they snapped both my mirrors off. Then we rolled end over end, bounced hard on our tires and flipped upside down onto the roof. When my eyes opened again I was upside down still buckled in my seatbelt. Nora was laying on her back on the headliner – inside the roof of the car – looking right at me. Heidi was behind me in the backseat. 

I was disoriented and didn’t realize I was inverted, so when I released my seatbelt, I collapsed near Nora.  I picked her up and saw that she was badly hurt. She had a large, deep cut across her belly.

I heard voices outside the truck. The only way out of the vehicle was a hole in the back window. I passed Nora out of the window to a nurse who was at the scene. Then Heidi managed to crawl out. She had a broken foot and a broken elbow. I crawled out last. We all managed to stagger up the hill that we had just rolled down.

We knelt beside Nora and the nurse who was trying to help her. A few moments later, an ambulance and other emergency vehicles appeared. The medical staff worked on Nora for a long time until a helicopter arrived and she was airlifted to a nearby hospital. We rushed to follow in the ambulance. 

But, by the time we arrived at the hospital, it was too late. The doctors told us that Nora had died. What started out as fun family vacation turned into the worst day of my life.

One of the things that makes that tragic day particularly heartbreaking for me is knowing that there were things we could’ve done to prevent it from happening. We had no idea that in the few minutes it took to unbuckle Nora from her car seat, our lives could change forever. Heidi had been buckling her back in as the accident happened.

Most parents know that young kids are safest in a car seat, yet there are lots of situations when families decide to take a risk and unbuckle or not use a car seat. Like when heading down the road for a quick errand. Or when picking up the kids from school or soccer practice and another child needs a ride (even though there may not be enough room or car seats to safely take them). Or when trying to calm a crying baby by taking off her jacket.

The point is, most of us have been there. Parents make these types of decisions every day. But we don’t always realize how costly these choices can be. I’m living proof of that. And that’s why I’m sharing my story. To tell you that sometimes a few seconds is all it takes.

Since the accident, I want to help other families to make sure the same tragedy that happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else. After Nora died, both Heidi and I became nationally certified child passenger safety technicians. Technicians dedicate their free time to helping parents learn how to properly install car seats to protect their kids. My experience was very gratifying and made me think of Nora often. Each time I watched a family drive away, I knew I had done everything I could to make sure every kid I saw got a safe ride home.