Everything changed in 15 minutes.
“Every day when Chelsea would leave to go school, she would always just kiss me good-bye,” said Kelly Norris. “That particular day she kissed me good-bye and walked to the door. Then, she came back and gave me a hug and told me, ‘Mom, I love you.'”
That morning, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009, was the last time Chelsea Lunt, a 16-year-old sophomore at Decatur High School, got the chance to hug and kiss her mom and tell her she loved her.
Fifteen minutes later Chelsea died instantly in a wreck.
“She called me every day when she got to school,” Kelly said. “That day she didn’t call. So of course I texted her to ask if she had got to school. I didn’t get any answer. So I kept texting her and still didn’t get an answer.”
Kelly then called Chelsea’s best friend, Carmen Cash, to see if her daughter made it to school. She hadn’t. Soon Kelly got a call telling her to go to the Decatur police station.
“They wouldn’t tell me anything,” Kelly said. “I told them I had to leave. I had to go to the hospital. I had to go. I had to leave. That’s when they told me.”
“It was the worst day of our lives,” said her husband, Joey Norris.
The Decatur Police Department determined that text messaging caused the wreck that killed Chelsea.
They found that 11 text messages were sent between the time Chelsea left home at 6:38 a.m. and when the wreck occurred about 15 minutes later.
“I know what the cops say,” Kelly said. “I don’t agree with it, but I understand the message they’re trying to send out to kids and adults. From that day I’ve never text messaged while driving. We have Chelsea’s phone. She was texting. I’m not going to deny that, but I don’t think that’s the cause of her accident.”
“We checked her phone, and after the last text, there is a three-minute window up to the time of the accident,” Joey said. “That’s a big window.”
Her wreck was like many others. After veering off the road she overcorrected. Her vehicle rolled multiple times. She was killed instantly.
CROSSES ON THE HIGHWAY
Wise County highways are among the deadliest in the state on a per-capita basis. Over the past decade, 185 people have lost their lives here.
Neighboring Denton County has seen about 250 fatalities in that time – with almost 12 times the population of Wise. In that time frame, Wise has had almost 20 more fatalities than Parker County, which has twice the population.
Friends and family of the victims have planted crosses at many of those fatal crash sites in Wise County.
The men and women who patrol the roadways know the stories behind those memorials firsthand. State trooper Adolfo Patterson has worked the roads of Wise County for a decade.
“Where I used to live on Lake Bridgeport, there was one right across the road from where I lived,” Patterson said. “It was of a little girl who was 6 years old. The little girl wasn’t secured in the seatbelt. The driver lost control of the vehicle, tried to overcorrect, went off the roadway and flipped. The little girl flew out of the vehicle, and the car landed on top of her. It happened on the little girl’s birthday. The date of birth and date of death are the same day. I used to see that every day right across the street from my house when I left for work.”
At the spot where Chelsea Lunt died, on a grassy hill that’s visible from Decatur High School, a weathered cross stands as a memorial. Kelly makes her way slowly to it, stepping lightly over weeds and wildflowers.
After more than four years, it’s the first time she’s visited the site.
She visits Chelsea’s grave at Oaklawn Cemetery every week.
“We go to the cemetery every Sunday. People look at us like we’re crazy. How can you go out there every Sunday? Well, we’re going out there to visit. That’s why we do it.
“I had a hard time ordering her headstone. Then Joey asked after a year why I hadn’t ordered her headstone yet. It’s because I felt like if I ordered her headstone I wouldn’t have anything left to do for her. I always needed something left to do for her.
“So now we go out there and rake leaves and leave flowers, and I’m still doing things for her. I kinda feel like I’m cleaning her room.”
They have a deeper understanding when they see other memorials on the roads now.
“You drive any highway and you see them all over the place,” Joey said. “It symbolizes a tragedy that happened. It’s the memory of someone. I would never wish that upon anybody. Your children are supposed to outlive you. When we see them, it hurts us to know someone else is having to go through it.”
BEHIND THE CROSS
Roadside memorials live beyond the tragedies that occurred there. And so do the spirits of those who died too soon.
Chelsea was an artist, an athlete, an A student who always worked to uplift those around her. Her energy affected the entire school.
“We learned so much more about her after her accident that we didn’t even know,” Kelly said. “We didn’t know what kind of person she really was at school with other children – how much she really made sure that other children were happy. She didn’t just hang out with the cool people. She had friends in every kind of group there was. And we didn’t really know that.
“But afterward all these kids wrote us letters and told us how Chelsea changed their lives. How Chelsea made sure they were happy. And you know, I didn’t know that about her. I knew she was very blunt and honest with people, and I would tell her she needed to tone it down a little bit. But I didn’t realize how she went that extra mile to make sure someone else had a smile on their face.”
In the wake of Chelsea’s death, her classmates rallied to remember her. One created cards for all the students to hang over their vehicles’ rearview mirrors. On one side it read “Don’t text and drive.” On the other it read “In memory of Chelsea.”
Three years later, when Chelsea’s class graduated, the students left a seat open for her in honor of her memory and legacy. It was empty except for a rose. Her class drew on her strength to make it through the tragedy and so did her parents.
“You can’t imagine how easy it is to give up on life,” Kelly said. “For me, I don’t know how many times I thought how easy it would be to pull out in front of a semi. As a parent I always thought, ‘How could I go on living if something happened to my child?’ And then when it happens it would be easy to just give up. But is that what you want to do to the rest of your family, or is that what Chelsea would want you to do?
“That’s not what Chelsea would want. Because she was a strong person, and I don’t believe she would want us to give up.”
LAW ON THE LINE
Many states and several Texas municipalities have already passed laws banning texting while driving. In Texas, cell phone use is prohibited statewide in school zones, and everywhere by commercial truck drivers unless they are using a hands-free device.
But a bill written by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, would create a statewide ban on texting while driving
After fierce debate, House Bill 63 passed the House earlier this month and is on its way to the Senate. But even if it makes it through the Senate, it’s likely Gov. Rick Perry would once again veto the proposed law.
In 2011, he vetoed an almost identical bill on the grounds that it’s “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”
Although it might take a law and subsequent citations to alter many people’s behavior, those affected have already made the change.
“I’ve never texted and driven since then,” Kelly said. “And I used to do it every day. I used to text Chelsea every day while I was on my way to work. She wouldn’t text me and drive because she knew I wouldn’t allow her to text and drive. But I’d text her when she got to school every day while I was driving.”
“I don’t think people should text and drive, period,” Joey said. “There are a lot of young people who are lost forever in this state just for that reason. So I hope to God that it’s going to happen and that the law will pass here in Texas.”
“I think it’s leaning towards it, but I don’t know what it would take,” Kelly added.
Maybe some of Chelsea’s strength – and the memory of those who live on in spirit, their presence marked by crosses along the blood-stained highways that crisscross Wise County will.
Because on the highway, everything can change in one distracted moment.
“People never even knew that day something like that was going to happen – that their lives were going to change so much that day,” Patterson said. “That’s going to be a part of their life that they are never going to forget.”
STATE LAW COVERS ROADSIDE MEMORIALS
More than 185 people lost their lives in traffic accidents in Wise County over the past decade. Many of those accident sites are now marked by a cross placed there by family or friends.
These types of roadside memorials began with an old Spanish tradition.
“The custom of marking the place of death with a small cross was brought to Mexico and the southwestern United States by Spanish colonists in the 17th century,” said Sylvia Grider, an anthropology professor emerita at Texas A&M University who has researched the phenomena of roadside memorials. “The custom of placing small, decorated crosses or other memorials at the side of the highway to mark fatal car accidents has spread from regions of the United States, like the Hispanic Southwest, where they are known as descansos, or resting places, throughout the country and even worldwide.”
They’ve become so common that many states, including Texas, have passed legislation regarding their placement. Texas Department of Transportation does allow them, but there are certain rules in place regarding their size and placement.
“TxDOT cares for the crosses on right of way of highway,” said state trooper Adolfo Patterson. “They have permits you have to obtain. The reason they are allowed is to remind the motoring public that crashes do happen on the roadway. When you see something like that, it’s usually as a result of some kind of traffic violation or not driving safely on the highway.”
Memorials can’t be more than 30 inches high and 18 inches wide. The markers must be made from wood no larger than a two-by-four. They are also not allowed to contain photographs or have concrete footings.
“We work with families,” said Val Lopez, spokesperson for TxDOT. “We mow and do maintenance around them. And if we have to do roadwork and move them, we always try to locate members of the family first.”