A chance meeting on a California highway 25 years ago forever altered the lives of two families. Pinned in her car after an accident, a young mother near death cried out for her 7-month-old daughter in the back seat. A Good Samaritan from Seattle came to the rescue.
None of them knew then what the events of that day would mean in the years to come and how their lives would lead them back to each other 25 years later. I was fortunate enough to witness their reunion and share their story.
1988 - The accident
"It was a beautiful March day," Seattle resident Shelly Cumley recalled. "We were driving up the pass and just admiring how amazing it was."
Cumley and a friend were heading south on a winding portion of Interstate 5 near Redding bound for a week in Tahoe. Roanna Farley and her 7-month-old daughter Nicole Farley were heading north to visit family in Portland.
Cumley and her friend saw a small sports car coming up behind them, weaving over the median and closing in fast.
"As they passed us, we looked over to see two men and were absolutely in shock at how intoxicated they were," Cumley recalled. "We knew they were drugged up or drunk and said to each other, 'those guys are going to crash.'"
As the car sped off the woman lamented to each other that they wish they could let police know about the reckless drivers.
"There were no cellphones at that time and we had no way to call in a warning to police," Cumley explained. "As we came around the bend, the first thing we saw was debris on the road and as we went further, we saw the accident. It was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life."
The sports car had crossed over the median and crashed head on with the car carrying Farley and baby Nicole.
Cumley and her companion pulled over and ran to Roanna Farley's car.
"When I reached the window to look at Roanna, I heard a baby crying and I looked in the backseat to see this tiny infant," Cumley remembered. "I thought, 'I have to get the baby, this car is going to explode.' The damage was so bad, the engine was crushed. The mother was pinned. We thought the car was going to blow up."
Farley's foot was impaled by the car seat adjuster, her left eye and her nasal cavity were caved in, her pelvis was broken and she was pinned in so firmly that she couldn't turn to see her baby. Despite her injuries, Farley was screaming for her child. Cumley moved quickly to calm her.
"I reached in and grabbed Nicole, she looked perfect," Cumley said. "I held her up to Roanna and said, 'Look, here is your baby she's fine, she's beautiful.' Roanna would open her eyes and see Nicole and it would calm her down, then she would lose consciousness. This happened three or four times before ambulances started to arrive."
Video of the accident taken by the California Highway Patrol that day shows Farley being extricated from the car, her screams audible over the roar of the medical helicopters. Cumley can be seen in the background with baby Nicole in her arms.
"I just prayed over her and her mom because honestly, I didn't know if her mom would make it and I was trying to imagine what her life would be like without her mamma," Cumley said.
Cumley was allowed to travel with the baby to the hospital and spent the next few hours waiting for Farley's family to arrive.
"I was told the baby was okay, but I wasn't sure Roanna was going to make it," Cumley explained.
Once family arrived and took baby Nicole, Cumley went on her way. Later, on her way back to Seattle, she stopped by the hospital to find out of Farley was alive. She was told Farley was still in critical condition.
"And then the nurse said, 'we've got the baby in the other room,'" Cumley said. "'No, the baby is fine.' I was told the baby was fine."
The nurse explained that Nicole was paralyzed from the chest down.
"I was devastated. I thought maybe by removing her from her car seat that I made her injuries worse," Cumley said. "I left that hospital changed forever. I was never sure of what my actions may have done."
2013 - Finding Nicole
Cumley sat down at her computer late last year and opened an email from a website called Godvine.
"They come with little thumbnail pictures and that day there were five little thumbnails," Cumley recalled. "I saw a picture of a baby and clicked on it. I love to watch baby videos and the very first frame that came on the video was her name."
Cumley saw the name "Nicole Farley" and flashed back to an accident near Lake Tahoe 25 years earlier.
"I stopped breathing, I couldn't believe it," Cumley said. "What happened over the next three to four minutes was the most beautiful, incredible thing I've ever seen in my life. I bawled, I cried and watched it again."
The baby Cumley had pulled out of a mangled car back in 1988 was staring back at her from the computer screen. Nicole was a grown woman with a full and joyful life. Cumley noticed the wheelchair Nicole was using in the video and again wondered, as she had so many times over the past two decades if rescuing Nicole had also exacerbated her injuries.
Cumley thought hard for a few days about contacting Nicole.
"I wasn't sure how she would respond," Cumley explained. "I wasn't sure it would be welcomed, but I knew I had to do this and when I saw her video, I saw her business card. I knew that was the answer. I knew I had to email her."
When the response came, it was more than Cumley had hoped for. The accident 25 years ago had established a connection that would be renewed in a few short weeks.
1996 – News10's Cristina Mendonsa meets 7-year-old Nicole
A shock of red hair and a whirl of wheels met me in the hallway of the Shriners Hospital in San Francisco.
This was my first story assignment after arriving at News10 from Denver. Sacramento was going to get a Shriners Hospital. My assignment was to visit a burn unit in Galveston, Texas, and an orthopedic unit in San Francisco to show Sacramento viewers the technology that would be helping local kids very soon.
At the age of 7, Nicole was already outgoing and exceptionally skilled in her wheel chair. Her mom Roanna Farley introduced us and coached Nicole through the few questions I had for her. Farley mentioned that Nicole was involved in an accident years ago, but we didn't talk about the details.
Nicole and I talked about the Shriners Hospital and how it helped her. Mostly, we played.
Nicole and I rode crank cycles through the hospital corridors. She giggled sweetly at my delight while I watched her pop wheelies. She was proud to show me how she navigated the world.
I left that interview knowing Nicole had a full and exciting life ahead of her.
2014 - A surprise reunion
Cumley and Roanna and Nicole Farley planned to reunite in March, but the Farleys decided to surprise Cumley instead. They arranged for me to interview Cumley at the Portland home of Nicole Farley's grandparents.
Portland happened to be experiencing one of its worst storms in years, with ice coating many of the bridges and roads. Cumley and her husband were driving in from Seattle. She assured me she would be able to meet, as her husband is from Montana and used to driving in rough conditions.
When Cumley arrived for the interview, Nicole Farley and her mother were in a back room with a bouquet of flowers waiting for the right moment to reveal themselves.
"I feel like it's an absolute fairytale," 26-year-old Nicole Farley said. "It's something Hollywood writes and I feel like I'm in a movie."
As the interview with Cumley ended, Nicole Farley and her mother positioned themselves quietly behind her left shoulder.
I asked Cumley to turn around.
"Oh my goodness!" Cumley clapped her hand over her mouth and sprung to her feet. "Oh my word! I'm so happy to see you!"
As Nicole Farley handed her the flowers, Cumley dropped to her knees and put her arms around Nicole's shoulders. As she stood after the hug, Roanna Farley pulled her in close and locked eyes.
"Mom to mom, thank you so much," Roanna Farley whispered. "Thank you for doing more than just holding my baby, for taking care of her and loving her and praying for her. There are no words I could ever express to thank you enough".
What followed was a conversation that went on long after the News10 crew headed home. Sitting together, the two families recounted the accident, the years since and what led up to a day they would never forget.
"This story could've gone a different way," Cumley said. "We could have people who are very bitter and who have not moved on in their life due to this tragic event, but they have persevered."
Nicole Farley and her mother nodded as Cumley expressed the faith they all agree upon.
"No matter how deep your hurts are in life and no matter how far you push them down, God hears your prayers, he knows the unspoken, he knows your thoughts before you speak them and He is at work in your life to help heal and restore you."