Letter from the Editor

Monday, September 8, 2003

A story that can't be forgotten

I've seen a lot of stories come and go around here, and I hope to see a few more. But one of the first of my career here is still the strangest, one of the saddest, and the one most likely to come at me in the middle of the night.

Seventeen years ago, our staff was called out to cover a tragedy when a car containing two fathers and their daughters bound for a ball game missed seeing a snow-covered stop sign, and smashed broadside into an Aurelia school bus. It was a horrible scene - both fathers and one of the girls killed instantly in the mangled car, the other girl barely alive and covered in blood. Injured and crying kids spilled out of a tipped-over bus. Confusion everywhere, and in that chaos, a terrible, terrible mistake.

Authorities identified the dead, the survivor was rushed to the hospital in a coma with brain damage, the schoolkids were patched up and the site cleaned up. Story over? Not quite...

A grieving mother sat day after day at her daughter's side, hoping for her to awaken. Just one problem - when she did wake up two weeks later, it was not her mother at the bedside. Authorities had assumed identities from a purse found near the body, and mixed the two girls up.

While Patty Noonan Anderson, 16, was in a coma in the hospital, her funeral was being held, and the body of her friend Shawn Lake was laid to rest in her name next to Patty's father. Shawn's mother kept watch at the bedside, believing her daughter had survived.

It is hard to blame officials. Both girls were blonde with blue eyes, both suffered heavy facial injuries. Patty was so heavily wrapped in bandages that even her own mother wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

The story shocked the nation, but imagine the incredible joy of a mother finding out the daughter she thought she had buried was alive. And the crushing blow to the one who found out that her daughter as well as her husband was dead. I'll never forget the story, and seldom do many days pass without it crossing my mind.

As with most good stories, there has to be something of a happy ending. We heard from Patty many years after the incident.

She spoke of the extensive physical therapy, learning again how to talk, walk, dress herself. Her first appearance in public was at a basketball game at her high school, where she was a drummer in the band. She insisted that she would play, and had no idea of the vast coverage of the incident.

"I went to get my drum, and as I was walking across the gym, I saw my instructor looking at me and crying. Then people started clapping. I turned around and started clapping because I thought the team was coming out onto the floor. They weren't clapping for the team - they were giving me a standing ovation."

It was difficult for her schoolmates to handle, she found. "They were thinking, "I went to her funeral six weeks ago,' and then there I was, back in school, like a ghost."

For years, the family refused to talk about the incident, hurting for the Lakes as much as their own losses. Shawn's body was exhumed and a new memorial service held before she was reburied in her own family's plot.

Patty, now 34, made the most of her second chance at life. She graduated from Iowa State University in 1992 with a degree in therapeutic, recreation and leisure studies. She married Dana Andersen and the family settled happily in Colorado, where she works for a company that operated group homes where she can help adults with disabilities and special needs.

The story is long since forgotten by most, but how many people live to speak about their own funeral? I think it will stick with me for life. I think of this "ghost" often, and wish her the very best.