Final Chapter In A Story That Began Eight-And-A-Half Years Ago

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Eight-and-a-half years ago, the Beeline Highway was rocked by one of its worst accidents ever -- one that killed at least two people and permanently disabled another. Recently, the latter was called home after going through quite an ordeal the past eight years.

In my case, this is a story that hits all too close to home.

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Tim Ehrhardt

As many remember it, July 17, 1998 was just like any other summer day in Rim Country. Citizens of the Valley of the Sun were flocking to Rim Country to enjoy our cooler weather and gorgeous sights. Yet, while Rim Country awaited them, things were not OK on the Beeline Highway leading to Payson.

An oil spill near Sycamore Creek a couple days before was still creating issues, forcing denizens of the Valley to make an extra check of their local news to make sure that the highway was open. Unfortunately, that was not all that was to happen on that Friday morning, as a truck carrying hay turned over farther north along the highway, and that's where this story turns tragic.

I was watching Channel 3 when the story of the tragedy broke. Their helicopter was overhead and, like so many others, I was immediately trying to figure out where the accident had occurred. Soon, we were informed that it had occurred near Mount Ord, just down from treacherous Slate Creek Hill. It was not a pretty scene.

It turns out that a truck carrying hay had picked the wrong spot to lose control. It was at the bottom of Slate Creek Hill where the road curves, a spot where many people have lost control of their vehicles through the years. About mid-morning, DPS stopped traffic for a few minutes in order to clean up the scene.

At the same time, a truck with a crane lost its brakes as it began the trek down Slate Creek Hill. Then, all hell broke loose.

Unable to stop, it rammed into the stopped cars at the bottom of the hill. Its crane got loose and lives were forever changed.

The July 21, 1998 Payson Roundup had some pretty vivid descriptions of the scene: "It was a battleground. I hope I never see another one of those," said Don Rose, assistant fire chief for the Payson Fire Department at the time.

In another story, Rose compared the scene to what he saw in Vietnam, with helicopters coming in and out of the scene. Indeed, this was a significant tragedy. According to the July 21, 1998 Roundup, there were seven Level 1 trauma patients.

It wasn't until later that day that I found out about the family connection. One of the families that were stopped were the Arbaughs, members of my church in the Valley. One of their daughters, Katherine, rang in my Mom's handbell choir alongside me.

I didn't know Katherine well. She was four years younger. My only memory of Katherine was that of my mom picking her up one time on the way to bells. She lived just a mile away from us. She had a bright, shining face, skinny in build, and clearly had high hopes for the future.

But that day on the Beeline Highway forever changed her life and that of her family. Katherine managed to survive the wreck -- barely alive, she was in a coma for weeks. I still remember hearing a poignant thing from my mom about the family. Katherine's younger sister saw the picture that The Arizona Republic ran the next day of the accident and noticed her precious little plush pig sitting there on the roadway. Stories like that make your heart break.

After Katherine came out of the coma, she was a "nonverbal quadriplegic."

With the help of a special needs program at McClintock High School, she managed to get her high school diploma. The Arbaughs adjusted the best they could. Katherine needed permanent care and the Arbaughs did everything they could for her. They widened the doorways in their house, so that Katherine could come through them.

Eight-and-a-half years later, I found out the news: Katherine has gone to be with God. My mom's Adult Handbell Choir rang at her funeral. I heard that it was quite an event. Lots of tears were shed, both of joy for Katherine's pain having ended and of sadness that such a promising life had been cut so tragically short because of an accident on the Beeline Highway.

It is a reminder to us all to enjoy life, for it may be cut short tomorrow by something totally out of our control. It's also a reminder to slow down a little bit more when we're headed down Slate Creek Hill. Who knows, maybe it'll be our brakes that go out the next time.

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