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An Unexpected Journey

The postcard from the place they had hoped to be vacationing in was ordinary. "Dear Mom and Dad, I really miss you. I am having a great time."

It arrived in the Kingsville living room of Peter and Kay Vinton, carried in by one of the around-the-clock nurses they had hired after they returned home in wheelchairs, her ribs and feet broken, his pelvis cracked and legs broken, their spirits intact. Kay had been surprised that the postcard came from their youngest daughter, Shannon, who is 7.

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The rest of the gang, well, they called the first day to say they had arrived in Ireland safely, and then, three days passed before they called again. Laura, the oldest of their five children, phoned eight or nine times to report on the castles they toured, the boat to the Arran Islands, the Galway Arts Festival, the hotel swimming pool, shopping day, and how on the night of their grandfather's 75th birthday party, when a little girl at the next table started Irish dancing, all the Vintons jumped from their chairs to join in.

The party for Kay's father had been the only thing left to plan. The rented house in Galway, tickets to three shows and a stay in the luxury Adare Manor Hotel had been booked since winter.

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The folder holding all the details was destroyed, along with the Vintons' metallic gray Chevrolet Suburban, on the night of July 9, just 10 days before they were scheduled to leave for Ireland. Immediately, Kay's parents announced they would not go on the trip. But the more Kay and Peter thought about it, the more they thought the kids should go, all but Danny, the 5-year-old, who was recovering from back surgery to repair torn ligaments. So when Kay was released from the hospital, she reviewed old e-mails and reconstructed the itinerary.

As for Kay and Peter, both 39, they had already embarked on a different journey. Others invited themselves along on this most unexpected of trips.

In the living room, Kay sits in a big chair across from the piano and the family photograph hanging above it, a photo taken last fall on the front lawn under the trees. Everybody is wearing maroon sweaters. Laura, who turns 13 this week, is standing on the left, next to a seated Kay. Pete stands in the middle, in front of the boys, Drew, 10, and Danny, 5. Completing the arc on the right is Melissa, 11, and 7-year-old Shannon.

Thank God we're alive, Kay tells herself when she looks at it. We are all still here.

Just once has she looked at the photo and allowed herself to think the unthinkable. Can you imagine if I had to look at it and someone had died? And what about Danny, who was taking advantage of her inability to run after him, who refused to get off her lap until she kissed his toes 20 times - what if they had had to tell him he could never walk again?

She and Peter sleep now in matching hospital beds in the living room. She arrived home first. There was so much noise in the house that day that Pete, hearing it over the phone, asked if she was having a party. Every four hours, a new friend or neighbor came to relieve the last one.

They all wanted to know the details.

Louisville, Ky., was a last-minute stop. The Vintons had spent a week in Nashville, where Laura performed in a national competition for Irish dancing, and they met old friends and visited country music landmarks. Six Flags beckoned, and the family added two nights to the trip. It was 3 p.m. when they left Louisville. Pete hoped to work the next day. He was doing 77 mph, on cruise control. Everybody was passing him, but when Kay complained that she didn't want to be stopped by a state trooper, he slowed to 70. They were listening to country music when they crossed over the state line into Garrett County around 10:30 p.m. In the back seats, Laura read Harry Potter, Melissa slept and the three others, wearing head phones, watched Spy Kids II.

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Kay saw the car coming at them first. "Pete, Look out!" she screamed. Pete swerved to get out of the way. The other car swerved with him. Pete swerved back. The other car followed and hit the Vintons head on. Pete felt the Suburban lift up in the air. Then it was over. "What just happened?" he yelled.

"Is anybody dead?" shouted Drew. If they were dead, they couldn't answer, he later noted with chagrin, but his words at that moment made his mother's adrenaline kick in. I'm getting out of here, she told herself. There was a hole, maybe a window with no glass, she didn't know, and she crawled through it, Army style, head first, and by foot made it to the grassy median. Drew followed her out. Sitting on the grass, seeing the car tilted on its side, Pete suspended in the air, she began to think there was no way the rest of the family would make it out alive.

Within minutes, Laura was unbuckling the other children's seatbelts and handing them to an off-duty firefighter who stopped to help. An off-duty paramedic and his wife stopped, too, but there was little they could do for Pete, who was trapped. A nurse passing by talked to him for 45 minutes, until rescuers could cut a hole in the roof and lift him out.

From the shape of the other car, Kay knew its driver was dead. Later, they would learn his name, Charles Dewayne Jackson, and that he had stopped taking medication for mental illness a year ago, and that, in his hometown of Pittsburgh, he had purchased a bus ticket to Miami. The mystery was why the 28-year-old man got off the bus in Breezewood, Pa. There he stole the Caprice Classic he drove down the wrong side of Interstate 68 and into the Vintons' SUV.

Kay couldn't breathe very well, she told paramedics. She felt pressure on her chest. Please let these kids have a mother, she prayed as she sat in the grass comforting them. She heard the paramedics say she was top priority.

She and Drew went in the same ambulance to the nearest trauma center, Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va. The others followed in cars and ambulances. The last the children saw of their father, he was still strapped into the car, though Kay knew he would make it. He wouldn't know what happened to them until he got to the emergency room.

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At the hospital, Drew told Laura, who was in the bed next to him, about the paramedics' talk of ruptured lungs and doubts that their mom would survive. All night long, they worried. Not until morning did they learn Kay would recover - though with crushed feet, a torn spleen and six cracked ribs, she'd have to surrender her spot in this year's New York City Marathon.

Kay brought it up first: The trip to Ireland should go on without them.

She and Pete told her parents they'd be doing the Vintons a favor by taking the kids, whose bruises and broken toes were healing quickly. Pete needed to regain some strength to handle the kids' energy. He felt it was a good thing to remove them from the trauma. And though Danny's back was healing nicely, he needed extra comforting. Kay cuddled with him and tried to divert his attention. One night, watching the part in Toy Story II where Buzz Lightyear goes to rescue Woody, saying, "It's a tough world out there for toys," Danny turned to his mom to add, "It's a tough world out there for humans, too."

The couple's journey had started in the hospital, the day after the accident, when they looked at each other across the hall through hospital curtains, raised their arms in joy and said, "We're alive!" Other people were already on their way to join them - his sister took a taxi from Arlington, Va., her sister drove from Baltimore, and her parents came from Long Island to care for the children in a hotel near the hospital.

In Harford County, neighbors gathered for a ramp-building party when they learned the Vintons would return home in wheelchairs. Duane Quinn organized the project, while his wife, Karen, scheduled volunteers in shifts so there would be someone to help Kay around the clock. Another neighbor, Peggy O'Connell, whose girls danced with the Vintons, took charge of food.

The first to return to the Kingsville home after the accident were Kay's parents, and they were shocked when 30 families showed up a half-hour after them - builders carrying wood, engineers with plans and quite a few people carrying beer. All of the Vintons' closest friends showed up, from Loyola College where they met, from Irish dancing, from the pool, church and the neighborhood. Somebody made a collage of photographs taken on St. Patrick's Day, when 12 adults squeezed into a limo for 10 and went dancing. The kids made "welcome home" signs for each Vinton and posted them all the way down the street. The wheelchair ramp, when it was done, was painted kelly green with white shamrocks on top. "Vintons' Way," says the sign at the entrance.

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Some neighbors drove to West Virginia to pick up the kids and, with Kay's sister Jean, helped them pack for Ireland. The best man at the Vintons' wedding, Joe Valletta, picked up Kay from the hospital when she was ready to go home and an ambulance couldn't be arranged in time.

Kay felt like she was at her own wake. People stopped by every hour. Dinners were planned by friends through October. When she protested - she'll be back on her feet by September - they reminded her that Pete would still be laid up and she'd be driving five kids to school and music and sports.

On the night Pete arrived home after a week in a Towson rehabilitation hospital, 50 people came through the back door to see him. It reminded Kay of the last scene in It's a Wonderful Life. Everybody had a card, a gift or food or flowers. They inspected photos of the car and heard the story. They all looked at Pete to make sure he was alive. He looked better than they had imagined.

He hadn't expected their reaction, and he appreciated it: Everybody seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

It was the same reaction shown by the woman who had been driving ahead of them, who had pulled to the side to avoid the Caprice as it aimed for her. She had visited the Vintons in the hospital the next day. It could have been her. It could have been any one of these families, driving on vacation in their SUVs, movie on the overhead TV screen, kids sleeping in the back.

Pete could hear it in their voices: It could have been us. The Vintons' survival was their survival.

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Rumors had preceded Pete's homecoming. He was supposed to be in the hospital for two months, but he went home after a week because he was such a positive guy. The part about being positive is true. He is the kind of guy who doesn't get upset if he loses a client - he owns an employee benefits business - though he believes in being proactive to make positive things happen. "Mr. Too Positive" is what Kay calls him. She's the realist, positive, but a realist. He's, well, Mr. Laid Back.

With five kids doing homework, sports and chores, she has to run a tight ship, issue a weekly schedule of where everybody has to be and what they have to do by what time. If they're not in bed by 9:15 p.m., that's three minutes off their bedtime tomorrow.

Now she is trying to be more like him. If something doesn't get done at night, well, OK, she'll let it go. Never again will she put off writing a card to a sick friend because she has laundry to do.

"I keep thinking everything happens for a reason," she says. "I'm still thinking what it is. Is it to get me to slow down, or is it to bring the community together?"

Her husband sees a change in her, and it makes him happy to see her so happy.

He doesn't look back. He could tell you all the details of the accident down to what he said when the car flipped on its side and to the nurse who insisted he stay awake and his scream in the ER, which he felt bad about because he knew his kids were in there listening, but, ooh, the pain was so excruciating when they took X-rays. But he doesn't live in the past. Seeing the positive in everything is the way he moves forward, he says. He is not going crazy, lying there, thinking about all the work he has to do and the fact that he won't walk again for maybe three months. He isn't haunted by the accident. There is only one feeling, and he can't see it leaving him: "I can't get over we all survived." That is so much bigger than everything else.

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That and the outpouring from friends and the fact that every day he gets better and, yes, he's getting a computer and phone installed near his bed so he can work, and that nobody came away paralyzed, and he has plenty of insurance.

Kay sees the family photo when she sits in her chair. Pete sees a welcome-home card taped to his window. "We've been wanting to see you for a long time," Shannon wrote in the card she delivered to the Towson hospital. "I'm so happy nobody died."

This is the journey they have taken in lieu of the one to Ireland. Every day these last 12 days, when the kids were away and it was just the two of them, well, besides all the visitors, they have held hands and counted their blessings.

They walked away with relatively minor injuries from an accident in which somebody else died.

On Wednesday night, their lawn was strewn with luggage, opened and rifled through in search of presents the children had brought home.

Their children's journey is over now.

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Theirs may last for years.

It is a journey of gratitude.


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