“I heard the accident ahead of me, but I didn’t see it,” said Staff Sgt. Richard Arter.
The sounds left no doubt what happened; Arter described the loud screeching of tires, an initial booming crash of metal-on-metal and the skidding of vehicles off the highway.
The incident resulted in multiple deaths, a traumatic brain injury for another and a mother’s lifelong memory of loved ones lost in a tragic vehicle accident. Arter, a full-time recruiter for the Michigan National Guard, played an active role as a first responder in caring for those involved.
He was traveling back from a military entrance processing station in Troy, Mich. where he enlisted a new recruit. While the brand-new Soldier went home with parents, Arter was driving his vehicle alone, heading northbound on I-75. As he approached the entrance ramp to I-69 westbound, he saw traffic backed up and pedestrians getting out of their vehicles. The date was Wednesday, March 14, 2018.
An extended legal battle prohibited Arter, and the family members involved, from sharing details of the incident until recently. The trial, which focused on a semi driver’s culpability in the accident, concluded on July 31, 2019.
Despite more than a year of court proceedings which ultimately determined that no one was at fault, Arter remembers the accident like it happened yesterday.
“’It’s so bad. It’s just so bad,”’ one of the pedestrians told Arter as he pulled over, parking his car on the shoulder of the highway. “I saw a Chevy Malibu smashed to about half its normal size. The trunk was in the front seat, crushed by a semi tractor-trailer that was resting on top of the backside of the car.”
During the accident, both vehicles entered a ditch on the shoulder of the highway, then continued up the other side of the ditch at an incline. Arter arrived only a few minutes after the incident occurred.
He immediately assessed the situation and his Army training kicked in.
Now in his 14th year as a Michigan National Guardsman, Arter previously served with the 425th Infantry Regiment, an Airborne long range surveillance unit based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Macomb County, until the unit disbanded. He moved to Bravo Company, 125th Infantry, then deployed to Afghanistan as a sniper in 2012 with Charlie Company, 126th Cavalry based in Dowagiac. He has been a recruiter since April 2013 covering several locations including Port Huron, Pontiac, and Lapeer, while finally settling in Flint.
“My best experience was as a sniper because my trainers always taught us to lead from the front,” said Arter. “They led by example and really got into the details to make sure Soldiers knew what was going on and could handle any situation.”
That training came to the forefront as Arter rapidly took control of the small team of first responders.
“The back window of the Malibu was blown out, so I reached in and was able to feel the pulse of the little girl [later identified as three-year-old Aria Thomas] who was wedged inside,” said Arter. “The other backseat passenger [Cody Thomas, Aria’s father] was unresponsive. My only thought was that I had to get this little girl out of the vehicle.”
Meanwhile, a front seat passenger was screaming and Arter could tell it was probably the little girl’s mother. He directed other emergency responders to extract Brittany Thomas, Aria’s mother, from the front passenger seat of the wreckage. They provided first aid to minor injuries and comforted her with multiple warm jackets, shielding Brittany from the frigid air of the late Michigan winter.
The driver of the Malibu was Jeffery Middleton, Brittany’s cousin, who had picked up the family from the Detroit airport a couple hours earlier. Brittany, Cody and Aria had just returned from their first family vacation.
Jeffery was behind the wheel of the stationary Malibu when the tractor-trailer crashed into them at more than 60 miles per hour on the highway. Jeffery suffered a fractured skull, broken jaw and a traumatic brain injury. While he and Brittany were more easily removed from the front of the vehicle, Aria’s extraction proved very difficult.
“The family did not know the facts of the case until the recent trial,” said Brenda LaBean, Jeffery’s mother. “But during the trial process, we kept hearing witness after witness talk about ‘the military guy’ who ‘had things under control.’”
Arter knew what had to be done.
“I tried to get the back door open, but it wouldn’t budge,” recounted Arter. “Even with my six-foot crowbar, I couldn’t pry it open. I advised EMS what we needed to do. We basically needed the Jaws of Life to remove the door.”
“All I wanted to do, all that was going through my mind, was that I wanted to save this girl’s life,” said Arter.
Other emergency responders gave him the Jaws of Life and he cut through the Malibu’s mangled back door. Borrowing a knife, he cut though the child restraints of Aria’s car seat and slid her out onto a backboard.
“I checked again and she still had a pulse,” Arter recalled.
Arter assisted other emergency responders and carried the backboard down to an awaiting ambulance so Aria could be rushed to the hospital. As it turned out, he was one of the last people to hold Aria while she was still alive.
She passed away during the ambulance ride to the hospital. Aria’s father, Cody, was also killed in the accident.
“The rest of the day was hazy to me, so I don’t remember the exact time,” said Arter. “But I left work early that day to visit Aria in the hospital to see if she was okay. Since I wasn’t a family member, they really couldn’t give me any information.”
“It wasn’t until about an hour later, while I was watching the news, that I found out Aria had passed away.”
It would be understandable to think this is nothing more than a tragic story with devastating impacts. After all, it completely traumatized a family in the blink of an eye. The ongoing trial only prolonged the pain of a surviving family’s anguish.
But pain is only part of the story. This is also a message of enduring memories, improbable connection and strength in numbers.
Three different individuals, connected forever, continue to live and carry on the memory of their loved ones. Cody is remembered as a caring father and husband; Aria was a precious daughter and cousin. Their memories persist through the thoughts of those who survived, in the hearts and minds of Brittany and Jeffery.
And they are not alone. Arter, who attempted to save Aria’s life, is forever impacted by the event as well.
“The fact that he couldn’t save Cody or Aria does not take away from the hero that he is,” said LaBean, “and his heroic display of leadership and courage that impacted so many.”
For Arter’s part, he’s familiar with pain. Five surgeries including ankles, knees, gall bladder and the need for an upcoming procedure on his back constantly remind him of the cost of military service. The physical scars are only the beginning.
“I wish I could’ve done more. That’s the thing I think about over and over,” said Arter. “Was there anything else I could’ve done to change the outcome? Could I have moved faster?”
Despite self-doubt and lingering questions of why this tragedy happened, emotional anguish can bring people together.
The surviving family and other loved ones, such as the LaBeans, were able to communicate with Arter during the ensuing trial. They met multiple times in and outside of the courthouse, comforting and reassuring one another.
There is strength in numbers.
With her son, Jeffery, progressing down a long road to recovery, LaBean added, “I wanted to make you aware of what kind of people make up our National Guard. I feel incredibly blessed here in Michigan.”
“The family reassured me that they were thankful for my efforts,” shared Arter. “They gave me a desktop plaque that reads, ‘Your bravery will not be forgotten.’”
“Just like with overseas deployments, we don’t do it for any recognition,” said Arter. “I just reacted in a way that I hoped would save a life. But I’ll keep that plaque forever.”
“I know the family will never forget that day. And neither will I.”