Man makes slow recovery after crash
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Two people were killed this June in the worst high-speed collision local state patrollers say they’ve ever seen on Highway 82.
Loren Cunningham lived.
The 29-year-old was at the wheel of a pickup heading upvalley when a driver going 100 mph downvalley skidded across the highway, causing such a forceful collision that the truck sheared the car in two.
Cunningham doesn’t remember anything about the June 23 crash – including his ambulance ride to Aspen Valley Hospital, during which rescuers said he was conscious. But it was an accident that many others will never forget. Wreckage scattered across the side of the highway near the Pitkin County Landfill haunted the eyes of commuters in that evening’s rush-hour traffic jam.
El Jebel resident Angel Pacheco Pineda, 24, was driving the Audi that veered into Cunningham’s truck. He was ejected from the car and killed instantly.
Eric Norton, 30, was riding with Cunningham as the pair headed to Aspen for a painting job. Norton died later that night at the hospital, having sustained closed head injuries.
Cunningham was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital, then flown to St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver. Besides a closed head injury, he also suffered a ruptured diaphragm and two broken legs.
His wife, Crystal, spoke with him 30 minutes before the crash. The next phone call she got was placed from Loren’s cell phone, by the state patrol.
“They told me about the accident – they said they found his phone so they called me with it,” she said. “It was right out of the blue.”
Cunningham spent four weeks at St. Anthony Central and two weeks at the Mediplex Specialty Rehab Center in Thornton.
For many of those weeks at St. Anthony, he was listed in critical condition and was kept heavily sedated because of the level of trauma he suffered.
“I just came to about three weeks ago,” Cunningham said last Thursday. “They had me in a coma for two of the first weeks so they could do operations.”
Doctors first repaired Cunningham’s ruptured diaphragm, which was a serious threat to several major organs. They then went to work on his legs, replacing his shattered right leg with titanium.
“It’s titanium from knee cap to ankle – four steel plates running down my shin, with a steel bar through the whole thing,” he said. His left femur was shattered, and he’s awaiting one more surgery.
His brain swelled after the crash, but in time it returned to its previous state. Cunningham says he gets tired easily, but says his brain “is pretty much all there.”
Lesser injuries included broken toes, and bruised and lacerated arms.
Splatters of white paint in the right, upvalley lane of traffic still remain where the collision occurred. Cunningham said he’s not ready to see them.
The day of the crash, he was driving with Norton to Aspen for work as part of his company, Cunningham’s Custom Painting. Although he had known Norton for 10 years, they had only worked together for three weeks before the crash. He describes Norton as an excellent painter and “a good guy” who had worked in the valley for years.
He remembers so little about the crash that until two weeks ago, he thought he was alone in the truck.
“I kept saying I was glad I was by myself in the truck, and everyone kept their mouths quiet for my sake, because I was coming out of all this trauma,” he said. “Two weeks ago I was looking at pictures of the wreck, and I saw some toolboxes and said, ‘Those were Eric’s. What are they doing there?’ My mom broke down and told me.
“Everyone knew, of course, but me.”
@ATD Sub heds:Walking by Christmas
@ATD body copy: During twice-a-week appointments at Valley View’s physical therapy center in New Castle, Cunningham is learning how to walk all over again. He has been home with family for two weeks
Right now he can put some pressure on his left leg, but even using crutches is a struggle. Doctors say he should be walking by Christmas, though he’ll always have a limp.
“It’s hard,” he said. “The first time I was there it was like ‘Oh my God, I can’t stand.’ Since the accident I have no balance, I can’t stand up.”
He has a wheelchair for now, and a walker he’s slowly learning to use.
“The thing about Loren is that he’s always been such a positive person,” Crystal Cunningham said. “He’s stuck with that, and he smiles and laughs – his spirits are so high. That’s what’s keeping up his motivation to heal. He’s got a love for life.”
Crystal and Loren, married three years, have a 2-year-old daughter named Hailey who now likes to ride around with her dad in his wheelchair.
Pacheco Pineda, who police say caused the crash, also had a small child, and his wife was pregnant at the time, Colorado State Patrollers said.
According to witnesses, Pacheco Pineda may have been racing downvalley with another passenger car when he lost control at the area known as “dump curve” by the county landfill.
Although the state patrol received a lot of tips about the people who Pacheco Pineda may have been racing, they have never contacted any suspects.
“I never paid much attention to 82, but now when I’m driving down the road and somebody flies past me, my stomach just sinks,” Crystal said. “They don’t realize, they haven’t been there. They haven’t seen someone they love go through this. You don’t understand how fast this can happen. I can’t even say that we were the safest drivers before this.”
Cunningham says he’s fortunate to be alive, and Crystal says she’s sometimes upset about the crash: both for her husband and for Pineda.
“It makes me furious that he almost took my little girl’s daddy away, but it mostly makes me mad that he did that to his own family,” she said.
The Cunninghams are living with Loren’s mother, Tawny Dudley, and stepfather, Roger Blackard. The medical bills are sky high for the family, as Cunningham didn’t have health insurance and Pineda didn’t have car insurance. Crystal Cunningham said they will apply for Medicaid, though they don’t know if they will get it.
“They saved his life, and that’s the most important thing,” Crystal said. “The doctors did what they had to do, no matter what the cost. There are some things that are more important than money.”
There are some community benefits planned to help the family with medical expenses, scheduled for later this summer at Two Rivers Cafe in Basalt and Ship of Fools in Carbondale. For more information, contact either of these businesses or Crystal Cunningham at 948-9134.
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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