The day Vilma Oravec was left for dead didn’t start out like most winter days in Surrey.
The sun was shining, the air was warm and the 69-year-old grandmother was in good spirits, even though she was still adjusting to life without her husband of nearly 50 years, who had passed away in 2013.
A traditional man, he had insisted on driving her everywhere she needed to go throughout their marriage. So, when he developed Alzheimer’s Disease, she learned to make good use of the bus to visit him at Surrey Memorial Hospital, and then in White Rock when he was moved to long-term care.
That day, Nov. 22, 2014, Vilma had spent the morning at mass in New Westminster with her daughter-in-law. After being driven home and making herself lunch, the weather was so beautiful that she decided to hop on the bus to White Rock.
Vilma was shopping for a dress to wear at her grandson’s wedding in her homeland of Slovakia, set to take place in May. Just after 4 p.m. she boarded the 321 back to Surrey, watching an orange sky blush with pink and red hues.
"I still remember I was looking at the sky and the sun was going down and it was such a nice picture," says Vilma, smiling despite it all.
When she got off the bus on King George Boulevard and 92nd Avenue, she saw the light had changed to red for oncoming traffic. Seeing no cars coming, she did as she’d done thousands of times before, ever since the road was but a rural highway leading to busier places.
She was almost on the median when a flash came behind her, and then the awful thump of an impact.
Vilma tried to get up. Her head hit the ground again. Realizing the traffic was now coming, she worked quickly on her knees to pick up her shopping bag of spilled bananas and cold cuts.
She began crawling to the median. "A young gentleman came up to me there and he says, ‘Lady are you OK?’ And I says, ‘Yeah I’m going to be fine.’ And I start getting up and he says, ‘No you are not OK.’" Vilma looked down. The street was starting to fill with blood. Her leg was askew, bone protruding from the skin, and the world began swimming around her.
By the time the police arrived, nobody knew what had happened to the car that hit her. Perhaps they never will.
Jonathan Forero is a survivor. Just 13 years old when his family moved to Surrey from his native Colombia, the 20-year-old was adjusting to life in a new country, learning a new language and trying to make new friends.
But a hit-and-run collision near King George SkyTrain station shortly after arriving made things much more difficult. He was left with a broken clavicle, two broken legs and other fractures that put him a wheelchair.
Complicating matters is the fact Jonathan has a condition called Osteogenesis imperfecta, also know as brittle bone disease, a congenital bone disorder.
"Anything that’s really hard that can hit me or if I fall can make me breakable," he says, looking at the ground shyly.
Police never found the driver, but Jonathan didn’t worry too much about it. He was just focused on getting better. He desperately wanted to get better.
"It was hard because there are many things that you’re not capable of doing. In school sometimes people like to bug you because you’re not able to do stuff like in P.E. you’re not able to do what everybody else is doing."
It was July 11, 2013, and Jonathan was finally beginning to walk without crutches for the first time since the first collision. He was using his wheelchair to go to Central City to have a celebratory drink with his girlfriend on their 19-month anniversary.
It wasn’t a busy road. The two were just coming along 95A Avenue near 133rd Street when it happened.
"I never seen the car, I heard the car coming behind us and I seen the light so I moved towards the side. There’s no sidewalk, just the grass, and she was right beside me. Then I just heard the hit and my girlfriend crying."
The wheelchair was destroyed by the impact. He heard the car drive off but that was the least of his worries.
"Too many things were going through my mind. I thought at the moment that I was broken everywhere."
Jonathan says police have since found the driver but to date, that person has not been officially charged. He can’t even be told his name.
Staff Sgt. Paul Mulvihill is traffic services commander with Surrey RCMP, and has been a collision reconstructionist in the city since 1998. He estimates there are between 50 to 70 serious injury crashes every year, about 20 of them fatal.
"Fatal hit-and-runs are always more difficult to investigate. You may not always have the car at the scene," he explains.
A recent fatal hit-and-run involving a semi truck and a homeless man required hundreds of hours of investigation after the driver fled the scene. When a driver flees a crash, police need to rely on evidence left at the scene. Video surveillance is the strongest tool, although if a car is left they can get forensic evidence as well.
The problem is that it can be difficult to prove intent of injury or criminal negligence even after catching the driver who left the scene.
"A lot of people say, well, I didn’t intend to hit them. I was kind of playing chicken with them and then at the last second I went to bail and they bailed at the same time in the same direction and I ran over them," says Mulvihill.
Often, the people who run away are usually those engaged in illegal activities or who are impaired behind the wheel, he adds.
"We have to prove impairment at the time of driving, so a lot of the time when somebody leaves the scene it becomes infinitely more difficult for us to prove impairment."
Worse still, the charges for somebody who is impaired but stays at the scene of a collision are much more severe than somebody who runs off to sober up. Mulvihill thinks it should be the reverse.
"Unless they’re equal, it’s a winwin situation for people to leave the scene of a crash."
Complicating matters is that charges have to be laid within a year, which can often be difficult in cases where the investigators are waiting for reports and laboratory analysis to come back.
Crown Counsel is increasingly reluctant to pursue criminal charges without strong evidence. And even in cases where previously a charge of dangerous driving might have been given to somebody running a red light, these days Mulvihill says prosecutors need to establish a pattern of dangerous driving behaviour up until the moment of impact.
Being on the front line of collision investigations for 15 years, Mulvihill has seen an estimated 300 deaths over his career.
One particularly horrific crash he witnessed was at Highway 15 and 32nd Avenue in April, 2013. A minivan blew a red light, colliding with a mid-sized car that it sheared in half. Three women and two small children were killed instantly.
"If you’re called to a scene and you know you’re going to see something bad you can kind of prepare your mind for what you might see.
"But those first attending members can’t do that. They roll in and see all that carnage and they have a task at hand and they have to get that done."
Vilma smiles and shakes her head. No, she isn’t mad at the driver.
"How can I judge him? How can I blame him? He has to live with himself."
Vilma says she believes God was watching over her because things could have been much worse.
"I could have been dead. I believe an Angel was looking after me."
After surgery on March 5, she can now stand while supported, taking care of the grandkids during spring break and cooking for them in the kitchen. Throughout the entire ordeal, she has maintained the sunny disposition for which she is known in her neighbourhood.
"You have to be. There are moments when you are low, to feel sorry for myself. But I still have my family, my children, my grandchildren and I like to see them grow up," she says, her voice cracking.
Her biggest disappointment is that she isn’t well enough to go to her grandson’s wedding in Slovakia. The realization makes her quite sad and her son comes over and wraps his arms around her as though he wants to carry her there himself.
Jonathan is still in constant pain from the impact, particularly in his shoulders and his right leg. Three months ago he broke his leg again because it didn’t heal properly the first time. He underwent surgery and began
the long road to recovery again. But it’s not just bones that need healing.
"Physical pain, I can resist it.
Before the accident I was trying my best to be able to walk. Because walking means you can do everything differently, right? It’s more easy to do it. But since the accident I have to be in the chair and I haven’t been able to get back up.
"I still want to be able to do things that everybody else does."
Jonathan’s entire life has been delayed. While other kids are off to college, his life is filled with doctor appointments and rehab treatment. Finding work is a huge problem.
"It’s hard to get somebody to accept someone in a wheelchair."
Jonathan is also scared about getting hit a third time. He’s paranoid when he’s close to the road, even on the sidewalk.
Asked whether he would forgive the driver, he takes a deep breath and sighs.
"Accidents happen. He probably didn’t see me. I just don’t like the fact that he left the person there. I don’t want somebody driving thinking, ‘Oh I can just hit this person and leave.’" Jonathan admits it’s hard to stay positive sometimes and often thinks about the driver.
"He is just sitting there at home, being fine, working, happy with his family and not in pain. And somebody that he hurt and just left there is being in pain the whole time."
with files from Tom Zytaruk