On March 2, Dawn Ulmer had a simple plan: Grab a coffee at Starbucks, head south to Standing Rock High School and have a good time with family members, watching her daughter, Krista, play basketball.
She remembers topping a hill on N.D. Highway 1806 and seeing a northbound car crossing back and forth over the yellow line. She swerved into the ditch, trying to avoid a crash. The car over-corrected, came across the highway, shot into the ditch and hit her minivan.
"That's the last thing I remember," she told the Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/YhAgfy ). "There was nothing in front of me and all a sudden, he was in front of me again."
Ulmer never made it to the basketball game that day. But she made it out of the horrific crash and has been overwhelmed by the response of the community she has lived in for less than a year.
A benefit-birthday party for Ulmer is planned April 28, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Shiloh Christian School gymnasium. Tickets will be $10 at the door. The benefit will include a meal from Olive Garden, a bake sale, silent auction, entertainment, carnival games and a freewill offering for Ulmer.
She is no stranger to bad crashes. About three years ago, her husband, Todd, crashed head-on into a diesel tanker near Mobridge, S.D., where their family still has a house. It took him two years to recover.
"We were just getting the final bills paid," she said.
The couple's older daughter, Cassi, 18, graduated last year from Mobridge High School and went on to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. Krista, 14, wanted to go to a Christian school, and the family decided Shiloh Christian seemed like the best choice. Ulmer got a job teaching middle school technology and Bible studies, and she and Krista rented a home in Bismarck to live in until the family could sell their Mobridge home and move to Bismarck.
Ulmer said she has traveled N.D. Highway 1806 "hundreds of times" between Mobridge and Bismarck over the years. She never realized it was a dangerous road, though she has since learned that crashes are far from unusual there. On March 2, she had just passed a New Salem school bus carrying the girls basketball team. There were other Shiloh families on the road and plenty of witnesses to her crash. They told her there was nothing more she could have done to avoid it.
Details of the crash have been few, even now, more than a month later. Her husband requested a full investigation, including the blood-alcohol concentration of the other driver, at the scene. As far as Ulmer knows, that never happened. They've heard the other driver had been drinking, but they don't know for sure. It was about 5:30 p.m.
Page 2 of 4 - "It definitely was not something you would expect," Ulmer said.
The Tribune began calling the Bureau of Indian Affairs for information about the crash in early March. Officers on the Standing Rock reservation referred reporters to the BIA public affairs office in Washington, D.C. Nedra Darling, director of public affairs for BIA, did not return messages left in early March or on Thursday.
Ulmer said the North Dakota Highway Patrol obtained some reports and investigatory information for her. The other driver wasn't driving his own car and didn't have insurance. Though she has a name for the driver of the other vehicle, she's never found any information about him. She doesn't know where he was coming from or where he was going. The crash was coded "alcohol-related" on reports, though Ulmer has never received any more information than that.
"For me, it's hard to understand until I know the details of where it started and why he was so out of control when he hit me," she said. "It's a tragedy that there was a life lost (the other driver), and it is a tragedy that our lives have been so impacted."
What she does know is that she has been blessed, both at the time of the crash and since then. God was with her when she got hit, Ulmer said, "and he's never left me since."
HELP ALONG THE HIGHWAY
The right people certainly were in the right place for Ulmer to recover as well as she has already. She's in a wheelchair still, with a brace on her right knee. She has scars on her collarbone and her face, though none would stand out to someone who isn't looking for them.
The New Salem bus that Ulmer passed stopped at the crash, and head coach Jerome Slag worked on stopping her bleeding. Kathy Miller, another Shiloh parent on the way to the game, came upon the crash with her family. Miller's daughter owns the home Ulmer and her daughter rented, and she recognized her van. Miller is a trauma nurse, and she jumped into action to help. While Ulmer's van was largely intact, Miller said, the other car was barely recognizable as having been a car.
Ulmer regained consciousness to find Miller holding something over her left eye, which had been impacted both by facial fractures and shards of glass. The engine of her van was stuck in her right knee.
"It was very surreal," Ulmer said.
No one was sure whether Ulmer would make it to the hospital in Bismarck, let alone make a full recovery. She credits prayer for helping her through it.
Krista had been waiting to be introduced as a starter at the basketball game when everyone learned of the crash. A group of parents went into a room and began praying for Ulmer and her family at the game.
Page 3 of 4 - Miller rode in the ambulance to Sanford Health with Ulmer, calling ahead to make sure the right people were in place to care for her. Ulmer spent about two weeks in the hospital. She broke at least five bones, not including ribs. She had a contusion on her heart, and doctors were amazed none of her broken ribs had punctured her lungs. Her husband wanted to bring her home to Mobridge after she was released from the hospital, but with Krista still in school at Shiloh, Ulmer was reluctant to leave Bismarck. Miller offered to let Ulmer stay in her home and has helped care for her.
"It was a very wonderful thing for them to offer," Ulmer said.
RALLYING AROUND ULMER
Before the crash, Kathleen Wrigley only knew Ulmer as the Bible and technology teacher of her daughter, Quinn. When Quinn wanted to visit her teacher in the hospital, Wrigley gave in, overcoming her own fear of being in the way to allow her daughter to see her beloved teacher alive.
Wrigley recalled standing at the foot of Ulmer's bed, looking at a woman who was "broken from head to toe" and likely scared and worried about her own future. Quinn, holding back tears at her teacher's plight, stood at Ulmer's side. Wrigley remembers Ulmer telling Quinn to take her hand — the only thing that didn't hurt on her — and Ulmer began to pray, not for her own plight, but for Quinn.
Wrigley, in awe of Ulmer's concern for Quinn, promised her daughter she would do everything in her power to help Ulmer. She said Ulmer is humble and requests only prayer when people ask what they can do for her. But Wrigley said Ulmer serves her students, who all feel like they are her favorite, so Wrigley decided the community needed to serve Ulmer.
"It's our responsibility to serve her," Wrigley said. "We must rally for her and her family."
Ulmer said she was overwhelmed by the number of students like Quinn who came to her hospital room. She prayed with many of them, that they might be strong. Her family came from other states to visit and support her, too.
While Ulmer didn't want help other than prayers, Wrigley and others began planning a benefit for her before she left the hospital.
"They didn't give me a choice," Ulmer said about the benefit.
The outpouring of support from Ulmer's new community has been overwhelming. Along with working at Shiloh, Ulmer also was working at Olive Garden. The manager there donated 500 meals from Olive Garden for the benefit. Ulmer said the restaurant staff was "truly like family."
"It has definitely been a real testament of God's love," Ulmer said about the support she has received.
Page 4 of 4 - FEELING BLESSED
Her family has stayed strong for her, she said. Krista played in a game the day after the crash, again at Standing Rock. Cassi went back to Concordia.
Watching Ulmer's recovery has brought back a lot of hard memories for her husband from his own recovery, she said. They all know how much worse things could have been, in both her case and his.
"We've been very blessed, and we have a lot to be thankful for," she said.