The seven who survived
The tragedy of an auto accident doesn’t end with the dead or the damaged. Here is the stark story of seven people who lived
CANADA’S NATIONAL MAGAZINEr
TO MOST Canadians who think about it, the annual cost of traffic accidents is fairly simple, fairly predictable and fairly final:
Lives lost: 2,000 plus
Property damage: §60,000,000 plus
But, appalling though it is, this is not nearly the total reckoning. In terms of human tragedy, despair and economic hardship, it may not even be half the reckoning. For, in almost every fatal traffic accident there are the “lucky ones”—the ones who escape alive while others die. Almost always they go unnoticed in the black and cruel headlines; if noticed, they are soon forgotten. They have their own personal statistic—injured: sixty thousand plus. But there’s no way of translating this statistic and finding its price in loss and suffering. Those who made it return to anonymity: the anonymity of the fortunate survivor. This is the story of seven such people—seven people who lived through a single accident.
JUST AFTER midnight on August 1, 1954, William Korotash, a forty-seven-year-old factory worker, got into his car in Brantford, Ont., and started driving toward his home in Preston, twenty miles away. It was ideal weather for motoring: the night was warm and clear, the highway dry.
Korotash had six people with him in the car. They were in a happy frame of mind, having spent the evening at a dance at the Ukrainian Hall in Brantford. Seated in the front seat with Korotash were his wife Annie, and Joseph Zelieniuk, a twenty-nine-year-old bachelor who worked in a metal foundry. In the back seat were Korotash’s cousin Olga Krawchyk and her fifty-two-year-old husband Constantine, a textile worker, and Korotash’s daughters, Rosalie, fourteen, and Carol, eight. They all lived in Preston.
At the very moment that Korotash was leaving Brantford, another car was entering it. It was a blue sedan driven by Wesley Stevenson, a sixty-five-dollar-a-week Brantford bus driver. In the front seat with Stevenson were his wife Muriel, and Al Jones, a fellow bus driver. The trio had spent the evening drinking beer in Paris, seven miles away, and were now almost home. At exactly 12.10 a.m., the two cars met on a curve on highway No. 24, at the northwest limits of Brantford. Stevenson, on the wrong side of the road, was going at a high speed. In the head-on crash that followed, William Korotash and Constantine Krawchyk were killed at once. Muriel Stevenson died twenty minutes after being admitted to hospital. The two cars were totally demolished. A. W. Boos QC, the Kitchener lawyer who represented the Korotashes and Joe Zelieniuk, has pointed out that today anybody may face financial ruin unless everybody who drives a car is heavily protected by public liability insurance. “Twenty-five years ago,” he says, “twenty thousand dollars was considered a lot of insurance. Now you need fifty thousand dollars or more.” This is because the victims of accidents are often compensated for medical expenses and loss of earnings. Both these items today carry expensive price tags. Heavy damage awards, therefore, are not uncommon.
These were the main features of the accident which were emphasized in the newspaper reports the following day. But the full and terrible story of the accident has yet to be written. It is the story of what happened to the seven “lucky ones” who survived that awful instant on No. 24 at 12.10 a.m., August 1, 1954.
Before the accident, the seven survivors were in good health and economically comfortable. The future looked bright. A fraction of a second changed everything. Here’s what has happened to the seven survivors in the past nineteen months:
ANNIE KOROTASH was in hospital for nine months; she’s still crippled. Her face is marred by permanent scars. She has received only a little more than $7,000 of the $40,396 damages awarded to her. Too weak to work, and with her husband dead, she’s in dire economic straits. She owes $7,000 in medical and other bills. She’s supporting herself and her three children on a small amount of insurance that was left her. It’s rapidly dwindling. She sometimes says, “I think it would be best if we all took poison.”
How a split second changed their lives
It was 12.10 a.m. The night was clear
THE SEVEN WHO SURVIVED continued
ROSALIE KOROTASH spentsixpainfulmonths in hospital with two broken legs. She still can’t participate fully in school athletic programs. Her legs bother her in certain kinds of weather. Her education is going to suffer because of the loss of her father.
CAROL KOROTASH spent three months in hospital with a broken leg and severe concussion. Her mother states that she has been extremely “nervous” since the accident. She too will not have good educational opportunities.
OLGA KRAWCHYK spent four months in hospitals. She still can’t stand on her feet long enough to do her own housework. Friends tell her that she has aged fifteen years since the accident. The right side of her face has been pushed out of shape. “I cried when I first saw myself in a mirror after the accident,” she says. She collected less than $7,000 of the $37,986 awarded to her. It was spent on medical expenses.
JOSEPH ZELIENIUK was unconscious for twelve days after the crash. He didn’t get out of hospital for almost a year. Awarded $18,399 damages, he actually received about $3,000—not enough to meet his doctor and hospital bills. He still hobbles on crutches, doesn’t know when he’ll be able to work again. He’s depressed by the enforced idleness of the past nineteen months. “I’m still suffering pain,” he says, “and my money’s running out. What’s going to happen to me?”
AL JONES, after three costly months away from work due to injuries, was able to return to his bus-driving job.
WESLEY STEVENSON incurred injuries that kept him in hospital for four months. He’s still unable to work. He’s served four months in prison after having been found guilty of dangerous driving. He’s lost his home and his car. His sister supports him: he hasn’t made a cent since July 31, 1954. It’s possible that some day Stevenson will recover sufficiently to go back to work. It’s unlikely, however, that he will ever recover from the financial ruin resulting directly from the accident. An Ontario Supreme Court judged him responsible for the crash and ordered him to personally pay $75,016.45 to the victims. “I’m a ruined man,” says Stevenson. “I’m now virtually a slave. I’ll spend the rest of my fife paying.”
The Stevenson accident is a tragic example of the dilemma that, conceivably, could face anyone who may become involved in an automobile accident, either as the guilty party or as a blameless victim. If a person is killed, the court may order the guilty party to pay his dependent family an amount of money equal to the amount he might have earned had he lived the normal life span. Injured survivors may also be awarded the costs of medical care and other expenses. In addition they may be compensated for their suffering and loss of earning power. In the Stevenson accident the damages awarded—$96,781.95—were not unreasonable since there were three parties involved: the Korotashes, the Krawchyks and Joseph Zelieniuk. Stevenson’s insurance protection amounted to only $21,765.50. Therefore, he still owes $75,016.45. And for each year he defaults, there is added to this amount almost $4,000 in interest.
Stevenson sees no escape from his financial nightmare. He constantly worries about the future. “It’s hopeless,” he says. His appetite has been so affected that at one time his weight had dropped from a normal one hundred and seventy-five pounds to one hundred and thirtyfive. Today he weighs one hundred and fiftyfive. On his bus driver’s salary before the accident he managed to keep out of debt, but he couldn’t save any money. He hasn’t earned a cent since July 31, 1954, and he doesn’t know when he’ll be well enough to go back to work. Even if his health permitted, he couldn’t go back to driving a bus: the Ontario vehicles branch will not grant him a license until he has discharged his debts. Lacking an income, he has been unable to pay a single dollar to the victims of the accident for which he was responsible. At present he is dependent on his sister and wife. (He recently remarried.) His assets have vanished. Unable to keep up payments on his house, he turned it over to his sister. His own'medical bills totaled over two thousand dollars. His late wife’s funeral expenses were eight hundred and fifty dollars. He still needs physiotherapy treatments for his left arm three times a week. Stevenson is pessimistic about ever being able to pay off the damages awarded against him. “It’s hopeless,” he says. “I figured out that even if I paid my creditors at the rate of a thousand dollars a year, it would take me hundreds of years to get in the clear.”
Hie cars neared. Suddenly one swung out... These seven people lived to remember
The seven who survived
Recently a Toronto driver who killed an engineer earning $18,000 a year was ordered to pay his dependents $115,000. A London, Ont., woman who injured four people was assessed $89,000, while a Vancouver court judgment totaled almost $50,000. In Montreal, a wife was awarded $30,000 for the death of her husband.
Wesley Stevenson felt that he was more than adequately protected by insurance. Policy No. 535726, purchased from the Economical Mutual Insurance Company of Kitchener, provided him with two thousand dollars protection against property damage and twenty thousand dollars for public liability damage. This policy cost him twentyfive dollars a year. For an extra five dollars, he could have had his public liability coverage increased to one hundred thousand dollars. “I thought I had more than enough to cover everything,” says Stevenson. “To the average guy, twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money. I couldn’t see how I could do that much damage in an accident. It never occurred to me that I might kill somebody.”
Certainly, thoughts of death must have also been far away from the mind of William Korotash on the evening of July 31, 1954. A sequence of very ordinary events placed Korotash and his six passengers at the scene of the accident at 12.10 a.m. Korotash made it a practice to attend all the Ukrainian dances in the area. “I like seeing my daughters dancing and having a good
time,” he would often say. On July 31, at 6.30 p.m., by prearrangement, the Korotashes picked up Joe Zelieniuk. Somebody then suggested, “Why don’t we take the Krawchyks along with us?” Everyone thought this was a good idea. So did the Krawchyks. Constantine Krawchyk started to climb in his own car but Korotash talked him out of it. “Why bother taking two cars,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of room in ours.”
Everybody had a good time at the Ukrainian Hall. Bill Korotash didn’t dance. His father had died some months ago and he was still observing a year of mourning. He had nothing strong to drink that day, or any other day for the past year. A stomach operation had put him on the wagon indefinitely. At 11.45 p.m. Annie Korotash began rounding up the passengers for the trip home. As she got into the car she suddenly felt nervous and urged her husband to drive carefully. “But I’ve never been in an accident in my life,” he reminded her.
He’d never had an accident
For Wesley Stevenson, the Saturday preceding the accident was no different than any other Saturday. It was his day off. It started off with Muriel Stevenson doing the washing, ironing and other household chores, while her husband cleaned up the yard and did repair jobs around the house. At 4 p.m. the Stevensons got in their car and drove downtown to buy their week’s supply of groceries at a chain store. By 5.30 they were finished. As they always did, they then adjourned to the nearby Bodega Hotel for a beer before going home to supper. Not long after they sat down they were joined by AÍ Jones, also a bus driver, who had just finished work.
Stevenson was a happy man: he was satisfied with his job and his home. He had been driving a bus for nine years and he loved it. “You meet the public,” he explained to me. “Everywhere you go people know you. It’s a good feeling.” Apart from the occasional scraped fender, he had never been involved in an accident with his bus.
Stevenson was content with his home life. This was his second marriage. He had divorced his first wife in 1947, agreeing to pay eighty-five dollars a month to the support of his three children. (He hasn’t been able to pay it since the accident.) In 1950 he married Muriel Berger, who continued working. Economically, they were managing nicely.
Dazed and bleeding , the woman shouted, “Take me out of here”
At the time of the accident, they only owed three thousand dollars on their house. They owned a refrigerator, car, stove and furniture. Apart from the house, they owed very little money. At 6 p.m. the Stevensons left the Bodega Hotel and drove home for supper, taking Jones with them. Later they played cribbage and drank beer. At 9.45 p.m., when the card game was over, Stevenson volunteered to drive Jones to his home, which is located some two miles north. To get there, Stevenson had to cross highway No. 2, which leads to Paris and Woodstock. Just as he stopped to cross the highway,
Stevenson said, “It’s too hot to go home. Why don’t we drive to Paris and have a beer?” The others were agreeable. They made the seven-mile trip to Paris, parked the car, and entered the Canadian House. They left at 11.25, about five minutes before the hotel stopped serving.
Stevenson decided to take a different route home—highway No. 24. At 12.10 a.m., after an uneventful trip, he was coming around a curve at the Brantford city limits. Stevenson claims that he wasn’t going fast. “I had a lot of time and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere,” he says. He states that the beer did not befog his judgment. Halfway round the curve, he found himself in trouble. A second later he crashed into the Korotash car and was knocked senseless.
“I didn’t care if I lived”
Mrs. Annie Korotash was the only survivor in the Korotash car who remembers what happened. She recalls that a car came speeding towards them on the wrong side of the road. An instant later, dazed and bleeding, she shouted to her husband. “I’m hurt. Take me out of here.” She soon noticed that he was motionless. She didn’t know whether he was dead or alive.
Stevenson regained consciousness five days later in the Brantford General Hospital, where all the accident victims were taken. His jaw, arm and hip were broken; his chest was injured. In the days that followed he learned of the terrible consequences of the collision. “I felt so badly about it I didn’t care whether I lived or died,” he recalls.
It was a grisly casualty list. According to Dr. Wilfred J. Holley, pathologist at the Brantford General Hospital, William Korotash had died instantly due to “a massive hemorrhage, severe blow to the chest, fracture of the spine and tearing of the aorta—a large blood vessel which leaves the heart.” Muriel Stevenson died twenty minutes after being admitted to hospital as the result of a broken spine, fractured ribs, numerous lacerations and a tear in the right lung. Constantine Krawchyk survived the crash only by a few minutes. Annie Korotash had two broken legs, a broken collarbone and bad lacerations on the face and head. Joe Zelieniuk suffered a severe skull fracture, spinal injuries, as well as fractures on the right leg and hip. Rosalie Korotash suffered two fractured legs, while her younger sister Carol had a fracture of the left thigh and severe concussion.
Evidence gathered a few minutes after the crash by Constable Hugh Hamilton of the Ontario Provincial
Police pointed to Stevenson’s guilt. There were twenty-nine-foot skid marks behind his car, which indicated that he was going much faster than Korotash. His car was on the wrong side of the road. At the hospital, Dr. Holley analyzed Stevenson’s blood for alcoholic content. It contained 2.2 parts per thousand alcohol. Pathologists state that, as a rule, a person with more than 1.5 parts alcohol in his blood can
be correctly described as drunk.
Stevenson returned home on Saturday, Nov. 27, after being in hospital for almost four months. He was still far from well. He could hobble only with the help of crutches; his left arm was useless. With his wife dead and his sister working all day, he returned ^ to an empty house. The neighbors helped take care of him. Four days later the police came and arrested him.
In the police station he heard himself charged with “the indictable offense of manslaughter arising out of operation of a motor vehicle,” and “unlawfully driving a motor vehicle in a manner dangerous to the public.” His late wife’s parents provided two thousand dollars bail and he was given his freedom. On April 6, 1955, the preliminary hearing was held. He was committed for trial by jury in September.
Now civil lawsuits were launched against him by the Korotashes, the Krawchyks and Zelieniuk in the Ontario Supreme Court, in Kitchener. They were non-jury cases. Hon. Mr. Justice W. F. Spence commented on the terrible suffering of the plaintiffs. It was improbable that Zelieniuk, he said, would ever be able to resume his job at the foundry, and “he lacked training for any other task.” His ability to earn a living for the rest of his natural life had been affected. “He suffered a great deal and he still suffers.” Mrs. Korotash, he said, would always “feel swelling and pain in her left leg.” Her forehead and face were blemished by scars, “very real damage to a young woman.” He noted that Rosalie Korotash was in hospital for six months, enduring the confinement of splints, wires and casts. Carol Korotash was still on crutches two months after the accident. Hon. Mr. Justice Aylen, who presided at the Krawchyk case, was impressed by the extent of Olga Krawchyk’s injuries and suffering. He noted that her provider—and the same was true of Annie Korotash—was now dead.
The court set the damages at $96,000. “The news paralyzed me,” says Stevenson
Judgment was given at the end of May 1955. Stevenson would have to pay the three parties a total of $96,781.95. Since his insurance coverage was inadequate, he personally would be responsible for raising $75,016.45. “I was paralyzed by the news,” says Stevenson.
The trial on the criminal charges against Stevenson was held in the middle of September 1955. He was found not guilty of motor manslaughter, but guilty of dangerous driving. The judge sentenced him to four months in the Guelph reformatory. Because of his poor physical condition, he spent that time doing light work around the prison office. On the morning of January 3, 1956, he came out of prison. “But not as a free man,” says Stevenson, referring to the judgment that still hangs over his head. Until he pays it, his bank account and property can be confiscated, his wages garnisheed. Stevenson says the amount is so large it’s hopeless. “If I only owed ten thousand dollars, I might arrange to pay it off at so much a year. But this way—I’m like Joe Louis and the taxes he owes the government: I’ll never get out of debt.” He says that he has no incentive to go back to work. “What’s the point of it if I make one hundred dollars a week and they take away seventy-five?”
Stevenson’s talk about future earnings is purely speculative at this point. His doctor has not yet pronounced him fit to return to work. Each week he goes further into debt. The past nineteen months of physical suffering and
mental strain have changed him. He looks much older, he’s quieter and he worries a great deal. “I’m not only thinking about myself,” he told me. “There are all the other people who were in the accident. They’re having as tough a time as I am.”
I found this to be true when I visited the survivors of the Korotash car. Emotionally, Annie Korotash is still shaken by the experience. When she stands up for more than a few minutes, her left leg swells up and throbs violently. Her head injuries still trouble her. She becomes dizzy when she bends over and combing her hair is unbearably painful. She has shooting pains in her face. Fortunately, the home she and her children are living in is fully paid for. They are living on a small insurance policy left by her husband, but this is rapidly dwindling since their only regular income is a forty-five-dollar monthly rental received from another house on their property. “I cut corners wherever I can,” says Mrs. Korotash. “I shop for inexpensive food. I don’t go anywhere and I don’t buy clothes for myself. But still the debts mount up. I owe thousands. I still have unpaid medical bills.” The future is bleak.
The future looked bright
This is in marked contrast to the family fortunes before the accident in 1954. In 1942 the Korotashes took all their money—eighteen hundred dollars —and bought an old house and six acres of land on Concession Road, at the outskirts of Preston. Bill Korotash got a job at a metal-furniture factory in nearby Galt and earned fifty-five dollars a week. His wife took in three boarders who each paid fourteen dollars a week. She cultivated a large garden and kept five hundred chickens and two cows. The Korotashes gradually modernized the old house themselves and built a new one. At the time of the accident they were practically free of debt, and the value of their holding on Concession Road had increased to sixteen thousand five hundred dollars. The future looked bright.
The history of the Krawchyks is not unlike that of the Korotashes. They came to Preston in 1948 and bought a six-room brick house for ninety-five hundred dollars. Constantine Krawchyk took a job in a textile mill and earned fifty dollars a week. To help pay for the house, his wife Olga worked as a “twister” in a woollen yarn factory and took in two boarders. When her day’s work was finished, she would hurry home and prepare dinner for her husband, two sons and the boarders. A1 the time of the accident, the mortgage had been reduced to three thousand dollars, and the Krawchyks owned a car and a house full of furniture. “I loved to work,” recalls Mrs. Krawchyk. “I was happy and I sang all the time— even at the factory when the machinery was going.”
After the accident, Mrs. Krawchyk spent four months in hospitals in Brantford and London. She’s still in poor health. She finds it difficult to walk and going upstairs is a major undertaking. The left side of her face has been permanently pushed out of shape. This has affected her eyesight so badly that she can no longer do embroidery work, even with the aid of glasses. Her lips are numb because certain facial nerves were severed. She has headaches. The death of her husband was a grievous loss. “He was a great talker and made friends with everyone. He used to look after everything. Suddenly he was gone. I felt iost and all alone. I have suffered for months, I have lost my health and yet I didn’t even get enough money to pay my medical bills. It doesn’t seem right.” Mrs. Krawchyk has recently remarried and is living in Toronto.
When I called at Joe Zelieniuk’s boarding house in Preston, he answered the door on crutches. He remained standing throughout the interview because he often finds it too painful to sit down. At night, to turn from one side to another, he has to get out of bed. At times his head aches violently and becomes “burning hot.” The inactivity of the past nineteen months has depressed him. “By now I’ve got practically no money left,” he says. To conserve his funds, he’s cut his smoking to a few packs a month. The local municipality has sent him several notices advising him that he owes the annual $7.50 poll tax. “I can’t pay it,” says Zelieniuk.
He recalls the comparative prosperity he enjoyed before the accident. On his sixty-five dollars a week he lived well; he had good clothes, went to parties, movies, dances. Even though he sent regular food and clothing parcels to his relatives in Poland, he still managed to lay aside a tidy sum each week. Zelieniuk doesn’t know when—-or if— these good times will ever return. He doubts if he will ever be able to go back to his heavy job at the foundry. He’s
had no experience at other types of work. A clerical position is out of the question since his knowledge of English is imperfect. As soon as his doctor gives him a certificate of health, he plans to register at the National Employment Service. If officials there can’t place him, he becomes eligible for unemployment benefits—a maximum of seventeen dollars a week for about eight months. After that, if he still has no job, he will become dependent on local relief or the generosity of friends. “I hate to think about the future,” says Zelieniuk.
In moments of desperation, Annie Korotash has often said to her lawyer, A. W. Boos, “I’ve got so little of the forty thousand dollars awarded to me. Please get more for me.” Like the other lawyers involved in the case, Boos is pessimistic about getting very much money from Stevenson. It’s unlikely that his debt will ever be discharged in full.
Stevenson’s creditors have a number of courses of action open to them. They can exercise their legal right to confiscate part of his future earnings. This has certain dangers. If they deprive him of too much of his income, he might decide that there is no point in working. Or they might decide that seventyfive thousand dollars is an unrealistic amount of money, and make a settlement with him for a more reasonable sum—let’s say ten thousand dollars— payable in fifteen years or so. It is unlikely that they can collect from the Unsatisfied Judgment Fund, operated by the Ontario government. Since 1947, this fund has paid out eight million dollars to automobile-accident victims. Some have been injured by hit-and-run drivers; others by drivers with no public liability insurance or other means to pay for the damage they caused. But the fund pays out a maximum of eleven thousand dollars to the victims of any single accident, and in the Stevenson case they have already received twenty-one thousand dollars.
While his creditors decide his future, Stevenson sits at home brooding. “The past nineteen months have been a nightmare,” he told me recently. “One minute things are going along okay— the next minute I’m a ruined man. No home, no job, no car, no money, no credit, no future. How do I feel? Terrible. I can’t tell you how terrible.”
The Korotashes, the Krawchyks and Joe Zelieniuk feel the same way.