Woman opens up about crash that claimed her family

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KSFY) -- It's the accident that shocked an entire community.

In February of 2013, the Vollmer family was driving back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota from a basketball tournament in nearby Mitchell when their vehicle crashed off of Interstate 90, killing Jim, Julie, 16-year-old Alyssa and 13-year-old Caleb instantly.

That crash left their big sister Brittany, at the time a freshman at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, the only living member of their one-time family of five.

Four years after the crash, Vollmer sat down to talk about her life and how she is coping with grief.

"After I graduated from college I accepted a job at Lewis Central Middle School [in Council Bluffs, Iowa]. For the past two years, I've been teaching sixth grade math," she said.

Vollmer graduated from Northwestern College on time and began teaching and coaching right away.

"I also coach eighth grade volleyball," she said. "That's been a lot of fun because I love volleyball."

It was a passion she shared with her entire family.

"Growing up, my family and myself were really into sports and being competitive," she said.

That competitive spirit was strongest with her little sister, Alyssa.

"I remember, being the older sister, I had to be better at everything compared to them," Vollmer said. "So like, had to better at basketball than her, or if we're playing a game, I had to win."

She was still competitive with her brother Caleb, but he had a soft spot for his big sister.

"They asked Caleb's class, 'What's been the hardest things you've gone through as a sixth grader?' And most people are saying things like, 'My grandma died,' or something and Caleb said, 'When my sister went off to college,' so that was really touching." she said.

Vollmer said her send-off to college was a difficult transition for the whole family.

"My mom had a really hard time emotionally about it," she said. "The night before I went off to college, she checked in with me when I was sleeping, and she just cried and climbed in bed with me. And I was like, 'Oh man, here we go again.'"

Their close-knit family was one of the reasons she chose to go to Northwestern in Orange City.

"Close enough to home to see Caleb's or Alyssa's games, or come home when I feel homesick," Vollmer said. 

She came back home quite a bit that first year of college, and can recall nearly every moment of what would be her last moments with her family.

"It was actually the weekend before the accident," Vollmer recalled.  "I remember, and I love this feeling, walking in the door. My mom was in the kitchen and she just gets pumped when I'm home, so I distinctly remember her excitement. She came running over, gave me a big hug. My dad came up the stairs right away to give me a hug."

Brittany and Alyssa spent the weekend planning their next adventure.

"That weekend, Alyssa did a lot of brainstorming of things she wanted to do over my spring break," she said. "My mom was like, 'Push through, you're almost done. You can come home in a week or two.' I remember hugging them goodbye and I walked out the door."

Then her parents followed her out the door, an odd moment, but one she will never forget.

"I saw like, my parents, my dad had his arm around my mom and they were smiling and waving. And I remember thinking that was weird, I just said goodbye. I just remember thinking like, 'What are they doing? They're having a moment or something,'" she said "I love thinking about that."

It is one of the happy memories she holds onto when the dark times following the crash come creeping back.

"There's just so many emotions you feel at once, and at the same time, you're numb," she said.

Brittany had been texting her sister while the family was at Caleb's basketball tournament that Saturday afternoon.

"She was giving me updates, talking more about spring break," she said. "I remember texting her, 'Hey, I have to do homework. I'll text you later.'"

Later that night, Vollmer went to a school play with a friend, but during intermission, her dorm director came to get her.

"Her responses and expression on her face told me something was up," she said. "Never in my life did I think something that drastic. But I remember feeling nervous, and I remember asking her, 'Hey what's wrong? Seriously what's wrong?' And she just started crying. That was the first kind of, 'This is serious.'"

When her RD left to get the college president and a state trooper, Vollmer instantly reached out to her sister.

"I was just texting her, so I quickly grabbed my phone and just texted her, 'Where are you?' And I just remember staring at that phone for a long time, just waiting for that response," she said.

A response that would never come.

"That's when they told me that none of them survived the accident," Vollmer said.

Instead, the news that shattered her family.

"When they told me about the accident, I just remember sinking down in my chair, and just saying, 'No, no no,' over and over," she said. "Definitely disbelief. I was very emotional in that moment but still, there's a disconnect with your emotions and your mind. I remember crying, but my mind just wasn't up to speed."

Vollmer said it took a while for the news to actually sink in.

"That first time seeing them, and that reality check of, this is not just a story, this is your life, this is really what happened," she said.

More terrible reality checks would come over the next few days of impossible decisions.

"A normal 20-year-old would not be put into that situation," Brittany said. "Fortunately, my extended family and close family friends did an awesome job of coming along side me."

It was that large support system Vollmer has counted on the in the weeks, months and years since the accident.

"I have just been very greatly blessed with just a strong support system, just incredibly strong, who definitely it's a priority for a lot of people, they want to help me, they want to come along side me, they don't want me to feel alone," she said.

But even with all of that support, she said the past four years have been incredibly difficult.

"I was definitely super confused, super angry, as far as my faith-wise, my thought as to who I thought God was, my faith in general - that was shattered. It just shook, it just completely changed. The accident definitely rocked that," Vollmer said.

And while she still has many difficult days...

"In the end, I'm still angry, still confused, wrestling with really difficult questions. The why questions can make you crazy," Vollmer said. "It's devastating. It's heartbreaking. It's not a story, it's my life, is something I have to constantly grieve and deal with, think about. But through God's hope, I don't feel completely hopeless."

She said her faith now helps to keep her going.

"By God's grace, I feel like God showed me His love through other people. Through other people, I was showed support, that definitely eventually softened my heart to genuinely feeling the hope God provides by giving us the hope of eternal life," she said.

Vollmer said she knows her family is in heaven.

"Hope that I'll see them again one day. That doesn't mean that I'm fine now, like everything's good, because the reality is that I'm still here without them," she said.

But while she's still here on Earth, she is working to make sure her family is not forgotten.

"Every year on my mom's birthday, I'm making little baby blankets, and I go to where she used to work, give them to the nurses and they're able to hand those out to families that just had a little baby girl or boy. That's something they can use in memory of my mom. My mom would have loved that," she said. "In turn, I'm able to talk with my mom's co-workers and heard stories of what she was like on her floor."

Those memories are one of the reasons Brittany is now moving back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

"I accepted a job at Sioux Falls Christian," she said. "I had a great support system at Council Bluffs. It's different because the people here, they were personally affected by the accident."

She said in the days and weeks after the accident, the support from the community was incredible.

"The day of the funeral, driving to the cemetery and I was seeing businesses with, 'Praying for you Brittany,' 'You're in our thoughts and prayers,' that's incredible. Driving down the street with the Lincoln High School students out there, that's just such an incredible response. It just shows the genuine care the Sioux Falls community had for me."

It was why Vollmer is so excited to come back to the community that knows her and her family so well.

"Sometimes, the places that are super connected to my family are more comforting to me. It depends on the moment, whether it's comforting or more difficult," she said. "I would say overall grief isn't something where you can plan like, this day is going to be challenging, like you just don't know. Something could just all of a sudden hit you, your mind can randomly connect to memories in the past."

That struggle will always be a part of her.

"The loss of my family is always gong to be a part to my life, for the rest of my life. That's always going to be something. There will always be mile markers per say that you'll go through and desperately want to share those with my family," Vollmer said.

But with time and support, she is learning how to deal with those emotions.

"If there are moments where I'm not doing good, even four years later, I would say it's alright to be sad about something that has affected you greatly," she said.

All while still keeping her focus on the future God has in store.

"I trust that God uses anyone's story for His story, for His glory, for His will," Vollmer said. "I hold onto that trust that God will use this accident, a big part of my life, for who knows what."

Vollmer will be teaching middle school math and coaching eighth grade volleyball at Sioux Falls Christian beginning this fall.

Read the original version of this article at ksfy.com.

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