‘I survived the fatal car accident that took my boyfriend and friends’ lives’
Meet the VT student who lost her boyfriend, friend, and almost her own life on the way back from Beach Week
Kathy Jennie Truong, a junior at Virginia Tech, always strived to push herself forward even when there were obstacles in her path.
“Back then, I always had this mentality where if something traumatic happened I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Kathy said. “I didn’t like to bother people with my stories about how I fell off a local fair ride or got hit by a car. In the end I’m alive; I move past it.”
She is a normal woman. Sitting cross-legged, she was pondering getting a Big Mac before heading to her marketing class. Nothing seemed to phase her, despite the fact that she almost lost her life in a car accident.
When asked about the events of June 27, 2014, the conversation took a solemn turn as Kathy tried to recall the incident.
The night before they left Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Kathy, 19, and her boyfriend, John Choe, 18, played video games together until 3am.
Kathy and John met during her junior year of high school in Korean class, where their friendship blossomed into a relationship. John invited Kathy to his beach week with five of his friends.
The morning of departure, the seven of them split themselves between two cars. Kathy, John and his two friends: Matthew Ta, 18, and David Sin, 18, took a 2001 Jeep. Since John was too tired to drive, Kathy decided to take the steering wheel.
The sky was clear as day as she drove them back to Centreville, Virginia. After 20 minutes, the three men complained her driving was making them dizzy.
“I wasn’t used to driving a Jeep so we ended up stopping at a gas station and switching drivers,” Kathy said. “Matt offered to drive even though he just got his license.”
After pumping gas, Matthew drove the rest of the way home. Suddenly, the clear sky dissipated into heavy rain. Even with the windshield wipers working at max settings, it was not enough to get a clear visual of the road.
Attempting to move to the right lane, Matthew didn’t notice the standing water that evidently caused the Jeep to hydroplane. Out of fear, he slammed on the brakes as the car spun in circles at 70 mph. The world started to blur around them as they fell off a ledge and into the trees below.
Waking up from her blackout to the car alarm ringing, Kathy turned to the side to see the Jeep coiled to a tree. Trying to discern her surroundings, she struggled to get a clear image due to shards of glass piercing her left eye. She jerked her head only to realize that it was stuck behind a damaged car window. David was inside the car, attempting to stop John’s internal bleeding.
“My body was wrapped around a tree that pushed my crossed legs together breaking my femur,” Kathy said. “I was in so much shock that my body shut down causing me to not feel any pain.”
Turning to her right, she noticed a tree branch perched on the Jeep. Realizing that a slight head tilt could have caused the tree branch to potentially smash her head, Kathy blacked out again.
“I woke up when the fire fighters came and I started freaking out because the pain started to kick in,” Kathy said. “Matthew was screaming in the front and I wanted to calm him down so I tried patting his head, repeatedly saying that everything was going to be OK.”
David was rescued without injury while John and Matthew were airlifted via helicopter. Careful examination was placed on John’s internal bleeding while Matthew was in critical condition. The firefighters used a chainsaw to cut the Jeep’s roof and rescue Kathy. In order to prevent anything sharp from flying into her face, a towel was placed on top of her head.
“There was this natural reaction for me to try to lift myself up,” Kathy said. “I started to panic because I couldn’t feel my legs, but luckily, the firefighter calmed me down.”
After her rescue, Kathy was transported via ambulance to Nash General Hospital in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
“My mom called me immediately when I entered the hospital. She just returned home with my brothers from swim practice before hearing the news,” Kathy said. “She kept screaming at me and I just reassured her that we were OK, even though we definitely weren’t.”
Kathy’s family arrived five hours after the call, learning of the injuries she sustained. Along with a broken femur, her seatbelt fractured her clavicle. Since she sat cross-legged during the collision, it prevented the crash from slicing off her legs. She was lucky to be alive – but John and Matthew were not as fortunate.
“To this day, I still don’t understand how they both died,” Kathy said. “Matthew died on the way to the hospital and John actually went through a successful surgery, but he died while in the waiting room. I don’t want to ask his parents about it because I don’t want them to relive that trauma.”
Kathy endured months of rehab in order to get back on her feet. Wanting to go to both John and Matthew’s funeral, she requested to leave the hospital early after surgery on her femur was completed.
At the funeral, Kathy faced the reality that her boyfriend and his close friend were gone. Despite the constant days of mourning, she remembered their last date.
“One night, John asked me what would happen if he died. He reasoned, ‘You know if I die, we’re still young so you shouldn’t hold on to me.’ I joked by saying I would become a widow,” Kathy said. “We sort of went through the process of accepting his death before he died. It gave me peace because he reassured me that everything was going to be OK.”
After completing rehab back at home and finishing surgery on her clavicle, Kathy pursued her academic career at Virginia Tech where she became heavily involved with the Vietnamese Student Association (V.S.A.), eventually being elected as their executive vice president.
“She was one of the first people I met in V.S.A. back in freshman year,” said Yusuf Ahmed, a junior at Virginia Tech. “She always made me feel welcomed around her, and her edited pictures of my friends has provided me with a lifetime worth of laughs.”
She slowly began to normalize her life again by participating in activities that required immense physical movement, despite the chance that she could injure her hip.
“My doctor told me that if I injured my hip, I would go through life-threatening surgery where I had a 50 percent chance to live,” Kathy said. “Initially I was scared to do anything, but after constant peer pressure, I was able to climb a 10 foot wall and now I dance for V.S.A. I love accomplishing things and I wanted to enhance my chances of living by constantly moving and making my body stronger.”
Nowadays, Kathy openly speaks about her accident, hoping to educate others about the importance of being alive.
“It took me by complete surprise,” said Mark Catangui, a long-time friend of Kathy. “It’s not everyday you find a charismatic, bubbly person who publicly shares about a tragic event. I may not have been there when she was in the hospital, but I felt her growing stronger after talking about it.”
Kathy has posted her story on various social media accounts, including organizations such as Humans of Virginia Tech and V.S.A.
“As weird as it sounds, I love to talk about my accident. It’s a very testimonial thing even though sometimes it scares people,” Kathy said. “I just want people to know that life is short and valuable; I try not to take things for granted because I’m actually lucky that I survived.”
Kathy accepted the tragedy, prompting herself to build her life around people she cares about, including a new boyfriend.
“I’ve moved past it,” Kathy said, “I do get sad whenever I visit John’s grave. I used to visit almost every month, but then I got busy academically and I haven’t gone since last year. Sometimes I have dreams about him where I believe he’s asking me to visit him. I really do want to go see him again since he’s basically telling me ‘Hey, I’m here!’”
Somewhere up above, she believes that John is watching over her, proud that she is living once more.