Witnesses recount a frantic effort to rescue baby pinned under DUI suspect's SUV

mtheriault@adn.comJanuary 6, 2014 

The woman was going to drive over the baby.

Travis Reyes and James King had just watched a woman plow her SUV into a group of adults and children in strollers.

Now, she was trying to put the car in reverse and drive away, over the baby pinned between her tire and a snow bank.

"The only thing in the world that I wanted to do ... was make sure that car was stopped," King said Monday.

They succeeded.

By the time police arrived at the scene of the Jewel Lake Road-area collision on Sunday morning, the driver, 34-year-old Erica Merrill, was in handcuffs, accused of driving drunk, and the children were in their parents' arms. Police said she had a blood alcohol content of .287 some 90 minutes after the crash. She has been charged with felony drunken driving, assault and driving without a license or insurance.

Both men said they are haunted by the thin margin between what happened and what could have.

Here's the story of a frantic few minutes on a dark stretch of 88th Avenue early Sunday morning, as the two men who may have saved the life of an 18-month-old remember it:

James King, a 39-year-old father of two who works as a sign fabricator, had been talking about coming to see his friend Travis Reyes' newly souped-up Chevrolet pickup truck for days.

With one daughter at her grandma's and his child and wife asleep, he decided to make a late night stop at Reyes' apartment, near the corner of West 88th and Jewel Lake Road.

The two stood around outside talking about trucks and stereo systems, admiring Reyes' shiny lifted Silverado.

It was just after midnight when they watched a small pack of adults and children in strollers walk by on 88th, toward Jewel Lake Road.

The group, three adults and four children, walked on the south side of the road, which lacked a sidewalk. A snow berm had built up where a patch of straggling grass grew in the summertime, forcing them into the street.

Reyes, a father of four who works for a concrete company and does snow plowing, said he has long wondered why the pedestrian traffic on 88th Avenue tended not to take advantage of a cleared sidewalk on the north side of the street, out in front of his apartment.

King wondered aloud why people with babies in strollers would be out walking after midnight.

Police have not said where they think adults Patricia Shawley, Ben Phillips and Sarah Kaldenberg were headed, or why they were out walking with small children in the middle of the night. Attempts to reach the victims of the crash were unsuccessful. Before he could answer, a black Kia Sportage pulled out of a parking lot and headed down the street.

At first it looked like it was going to pull around the group, but at the last minute it headed straight toward them, both men said.

For a moment, Reyes thought the driver was playing a joke: that she was going to stop just short of hitting the walkers.

The SUV plowed into the group, pinning them against a snow berm.

"It looked like she just forgot they were there," Reyes said.

Reyes and King heard the strollers crunching against the bumper of the car and adults screaming.

They ran across the street.

Some of the four children -- including a 4-month-old baby -- had been thrown to safety on the several-foot tall snow berm.

The driver appeared to be trying to get away, the men said.

King went for the driver's side, while Reyes raced to the passenger side, where a baby -- an 18-month old boy, police said -- was stuck in a mangled stroller, wedged between the front wheel and the snow bank.

The wheel of the SUV was inches from the child's head, the men said.

King flung open the door of the vehicle and tried to wrestle the woman's hands away from the gearshift. She was trying to put it in reverse. He said he knew the baby was pinned.

Both men screamed at her to put the car in park and get out.

The baby's father was slamming the hood screaming, King said.

The look on her face was blank, the two men said.

"A 10,000-yard stare," is how Reyes remembers it.

King said he squeezed the woman's hand to get her to let go of the gearshift. He got the car in park and wrested her out, then sat her on a snowbank.

The smell of alcohol was heavy in the air around her, both men said. Prosecutors said in a charging document that that Merrill was "pungent" with the smell when officers arrived.

But the baby was still underneath the SUV.

King and Reyes looked at each other and grabbed hold of the front fender of the vehicle. Somehow they lifted it.

Reyes reached down and freed the baby. He shook away snow packed into the baby's snowsuit, his nostrils, and his face. The baby didn't move.

Oh no, Reyes thought.

King said he was afraid to look.

But the boy's eyes popped open. He looked around wildly and began to cry.

Relief washed over Reyes. The baby was alive.

Reyes handed the squalling child to his parents, who were hysterical.

"My baby boy!" Reyes remembers the mother saying. "Oh my god, my baby!"

"Your son is OK," Reyes remembers telling her. "He's OK."

Erica Merrill was sitting on a dirty snow berm by now.

At first she started to say something about how she needed to get home, Reyes said. She had kids too, she said.

Then she started to apologize, he said.

"I'm so sorry," Reyes remembers her saying. "I'm really sorry."

A security guard from the bowling alley next door arrived and handcuffed her, the two men said.

Moments later, police and medics swarmed the scene.

After the chaos quieted and the police were done interviewing, Reyes went back across the street to his apartment. He snapped a picture of the scene from his balcony.

King was so keyed up that he walked to the nearby Holiday station and bought an energy drink, mostly out of habit. He didn't go to bed until 5 a.m. that morning.

The most seriously injured in the collision was a 4-year-old boy who suffered a collapsed lung.

He was discharged from the hospital at 6 a.m. on Monday, said police spokeswoman Anita Shell.

The 18-month-old pinned under the car got away with just scrapes.

Erica Merrill has been charged with several counts of assault, drunken driving and driving without a license.

A judge set her bail at $40,000, noting that she'd been convicted twice before of drunken driving.

Both King and Reyes said Monday they keep thinking: It could have been so much worse. What if they hadn't spent an hour talking cars outside on a January Alaska night? What if the car tire had gone an inch in another direction?

"I don't know why I was there," King said on Monday. "But I'm glad God chose me."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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