They were going to save lives.
Samantha Rogers, 17, was going to be a nurse.
“She wanted to be a CareFlite nurse,” said her mother, Eva Czerniak. “That was her goal.”
Delaney Mancil, 15, planned to become a doctor.
“She wanted to be a pediatric oncologist,” said her mother, Debbie Mancil. “She loved kids. I tried to talk her out of the oncology part, but it was something she had the heart for – something she wanted to do. Both of the girls were always for the underdog. They would bring kids home just like they would animals.”
Samantha and Delaney, fellow Alvord High School students and best friends, died in a car wreck on U.S. 380 in Denton County on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010. The two were coming home from a shopping trip to Denton.
Samantha needed to buy a pair of pajamas. The next day was “Pajama Day” at school, in anticipation of the Friday night football game. Delaney had to borrow a dress from her older sister, Stephanie, who lived in Denton. She needed it for a date with her boyfriend and his parents at Reunion Tower in Dallas Saturday night.
Mary Watts, the girls’ best friend, and Logan Enis were also supposed to go, but they changed their plans at the last minute.
“At about 9 or so, Mary calls and asks if I’d heard from D,” Mancil said. “She said one of her friends was talking to Samantha and was suddenly cut off. No one could seem to locate the girls. About an hour later somebody called and said there’d been a pile-up on 380, a seven-car wreck.
“I called dispatch five or six times, trying to find out if they had any names or if anyone was released to hospital. The dispatcher told me she didn’t know anything until she talked to whoever was in charge of the wreck scene. The last time I called I asked if there were any fatalities. She told me she couldn’t tell me.
“By that time Stephanie had left work. She’d gone out to 380 to see if it was Delaney. She called me and sounded hysterical. She told me, ‘She’s gone.’ Then she asked me where I was, why wasn’t I here. I said, ‘I don’t know where ‘here’ is.’ She said, ‘On 380, with Delaney and Sam.’”
Meanwhile, Czerniak received a similar call about Samantha.
“About 9:30 I got a call from Mary that there had been a bad wreck on 380, and she had been trying to get hold of Delaney and Samantha and couldn’t get a hold of either one of them,” she recalled. “I tried calling (Sam), and she never called back. If I ever called her and left a message to call me back, she always called back within five minutes. She never failed to return my call. So I kept calling and calling and nothing.
“I called the police and couldn’t find out anything. We finally drove out there about 10 p.m. We drove up on the scene and it was total chaos.
“I remember running up and wanting to see her, and they wouldn’t let me. They stopped me. They told us she was gone.”
At the site where the girls were killed, two large crosses, decorated in purple, the girls’ favorite color, rise near the spot where their car came to a violent rest.
“The first time I went down 380 someone had already put crosses up there,” Mancil said. “I didn’t know who did it. They’d put them up with American flags because the wreck had happened on Veterans Day.
“That’s where God decided to take her. That’s where she left this earth.”
She now has a deeper understanding when she sees other roadside memorials.
“Before Delaney died, and I passed a cross on the road, I knew that somebody had died there,” Debbie said. “But it didn’t really mean that much to me, or really sink in. But now, it’s almost like my heart sinks every time I pass one. I know somebody’s family just got wrecked. Their life is turned upside down.”
At first, Czerniak couldn’t bring herself to visit the site where the crash occurred.
“It took me about six or eight months to finally go out there,” Czerniak said. “The whole first year is a blur.”
She had a special cross made with a photo of Samantha placed in the center. Friends and family of the girls visit regularly. They leave birthday cards and other memorabilia that has collected over the years on the roadside.
“I still don’t drive 380 much,” Czerniak said. “And if I do, I’m the passenger because I almost have a panic attack every time I pass.”
LOSS TURNS TO ACTION
Last August, a groundbreaking was held at the hallowed ground near the point of impact. The ceremony announced a highway widening project on U.S. 380 between Denton and the Wise County line. Officials with Texas Department of Transportation praised Czerniak for her effort to get the project under way.
It took a letter-writing campaign, a petition that received more than 4,000 signatures and impassioned pleas to politicians and officials to move the highway project forward.
TxDOT secured $80 million to complete the U.S. 380 project. The road has already been widened between Bridgeport and the Denton County line, but until Czerniak’s campaign, the section from the Wise County line to Denton was to remain two lanes indefinitely.
“It’s going to save more lives,” Czerniak said. “It’s going to keep other people from having to go through what we went through. If that road had been done, my daughter would still be here. Now it’s going to be a four-lane divided highway. It’s a safer road. A little two-lane country road is not made for all that traffic. It’s going to save a lot of lives.”
The project is slated for completion sometime next year. When it’s finished, much more than a cross will mark the girls’ passing.
WORK TO BE DONE
Now, almost two-and-half-years after crosses were first placed along U.S. 380 for Sam and Delaney, there is still work to be done.
Last month Czerniak traveled to Austin to testify at a House committee meeting on behalf of a bill filed by State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford). House Bill 1658 relates to the collection of breath or blood specimens for someone operating a vehicle or watercraft in an accident in which anyone is seriously injured or killed.
Czerniak said if such a bill had been in place in November 2010, the man who caused the wreck might have faced manslaughter charges for the deaths of two teenage girls.
Daniel G. Studdard, 30, was also westbound on U.S. 380. He was two cars in front the girls when he crossed the center line into oncoming traffic and created the wreck that killed Samantha and Delaney.
“They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Czerniak said. “(Sam) did everything right. The trooper told me she did everything right, and that got her killed.”
Studdard is currently wanted by the state of Georgia for multiple felony charges, including driving under the influence and failure to stop and render aid. Czerniak suspects he was under the influence at the time of the wreck on U.S. 380, but with no mandatory blood draw done, it’s now impossible to prove.
“She was my only daughter,” Czerniak said. “He not only took her, he took graduation from me, her college from me, he took a wedding, grandchildren. He took half my life away.
“If somebody is dead or seriously injured, it should be automatic. You are going to the hospital. You’re giving your blood. Period.”
If the law she’s been pushing for passes the House and Senate, it will take effect Sept. 1, 2013.
“I have to keep busy doing something to keep from losing it,” Czerniak said. “By fighting to help and save others – it helps me – so I know at least she didn’t die for nothing.”
Together, Sam and Delaney were going to save lives. Thanks to the efforts of people who cared about them they still are.
Their memorial crosses, standing over a stretch of road still under construction, testify to that.