Miracle on I-80: Couple involved in fiery traffic accident attribute survival to Divine Mercy
By Linda Oppelt
Pictured are (left to right) Tim Halstead, Jim Cote and Christine Cote. (Photos courtesy of Christine Cote)
COLORADO SPRINGS. On Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, shortly after 3 p.m., as they listened to a CD of Father Ken Geraci preaching on Divine Mercy, and with an hour left of their eight-hour drive to Omaha, Nebraska, Jim and Christine Cote had their world literally turned upside down.
A few cars ahead of them someone made an unexpected and sudden exit off the highway, causing cars to quickly slow down and swerve. Cote’s truck was hit from behind due to that driver not seeing the slowdown of the cars that was taking place.
Upon impact, their Silverado truck was lifted into the air and flipped over.
What happened from that point onward is a story that Jim and Christine want to be told, “for the glory of God,” due to the multitude of miracles that they experienced in the moments following the impact, and beyond. Christine has a written list of miracles, but as they were interviewed, even more came to light. Their story is also a testament to the power of Christian community, of the healing grace of the sacraments, and of intercessory prayer.
Jim says of the crash, “It was like we were hit by a train. The impact was so hard and the jolt from that might have knocked us unconscious a little bit. But we were in the air.
“I remember coming down on the roof and I could hear the concrete grinding on my roof, and we came to a stop. I yell at Christine asking, ‘Are you okay?’ We’re hanging upside down. Christine responded, ‘Yes, I’m fine.’ Then I said, ‘We have to get out of these seatbelts.’”
According to both Jim and Christine, the seatbelts released perfectly and quickly, even though they were hanging with their entire weight being held by the seatbelts.
“We both dropped onto the ceiling. I think I was unconscious shortly, but I remember her talking to somebody which is the rescue guy that broke the window.”
Tim Halstead, a few cars back, had witnessed the accident, and rushed to their burning vehicle with a sledgehammer, knowing the passengers were in great danger.
“When I saw it, I saw them on fire immediately and God already in my head had reminded me I had a hammer in the back of my truck, and basically I felt immediately to just get up there and help . . . get the hammer and get out and break a window.”
He knew to bust the window by hitting on one of the corners, specifically the bottom corner.
When he got there “Christine was hitting on the glass from inside. I was trying to yell at her to get back but there wasn’t a lot of time — she didn’t get back so I just busted the glass. There was never any more thought than that, it was more of — God’s timing was perfect — God was just working through me.”
Jim believes the fuel tank was hit and gasoline was pouring down the truck. Within minutes of impact, thanks to Tim’s quick action, they were able to get out of the truck, and shortly thereafter the truck exploded.
Halstead sustained second- degree burns on his right leg from his knee down. “When I stepped in to break the window there was a back draft. I don’t know how Christine didn’t get burned worse because that back draft came right across her.”
Somehow Christine emerged fairly quickly from the truck with only minor injuries. Jim says he believes that “Mary’s veil was protecting Christine.” Christine attributes the Divine Mercy of God to their survival.
“The CD by Father Geraci was still playing when we landed and were taking our seatbelts off,” she said. “It kept playing as we got out and until the truck blew up. We had been listening for 1½ hrs — it was about God’s mercy and God’s justice. The accident happened at about 3:27 p.m. during the Hour of Mercy (3-4 p.m. on a Friday).
Jim, who was in the truck longer, sustained second- and third-degree burns on 35% of his body, mostly on his back, but also on his arms and legs.
He was flown to the nearest hospital’s ER. Both were checked out, and had CT scans. Neither one had any broken bones. Christine had a brain bleed too small to measure. Jim had a 2-mm brain bleed.
On Saturday they were taken to St. Elizabeth Burn Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they met with a surgeon. His prognosis was grim.
“Dr. Hao was trying to impress on me that it didn’t look good, because Jim is 75 years old, he has 35% of his body burned, which is a lot for an older guy, and so much of it was third-degree burns. So he was trying to impress on us that it could go either way. And while he’s talking to me . . . I’m thinking ‘but we have God in our corner.’”
Having lost her purse in the exploded truck, Christine had no identification, no cellphone, credit cards or personal items. The only phone number she could remember from memory was the landline phone number of longtime friend and fellow Holy Apostles parishioner, Dolores Moon, who she called on Saturday, about 24 hours after the accident.
Her husband Don took the initial call.
“The news was shocking; it took me a while to digest what (Don) was saying while prayers asking God for help flooded my mind,” said Dolores Moon. “Later Christine called and very calmly went over moment-by-moment all that happened, I was amazed by how God’s guiding hand brought them both out of the burning vehicle to safety with literally just seconds to spare.”
Moon became the main point of contact for Christine and was able to get in touch with several people who immediately initiated prayers for the Cotes, in the various communities they are involved in, such as the Holy Apostles adoration community, the lay Carmelite communities in Colorado Springs and Denver, the Knights of Columbus, and others.
At the burn center, they were able to receive communion almost every day, Christine said, and “Jim received anointing of the sick and went to confession minutes before he was wheeled in for his second, most major surgery” — the extensive skin grafting on his back, for which the surgeon actually ran out of skin to take from his non-burned legs and arms.
“Dr. Hao gave permission for me to sleep in Jim’s room,” Christine added. “This was extremely life-giving for both of us.”
Rosemary Oblon at that time was Coordinator of Parish Life at Holy Apostles, and is a retired registered nurse. She had 43 years of experience in treating critical care patients, including a few who had been severely burned. She said that the fact that they allowed Christine to stay in the room with Jim was “very unusual.”
Oblon spoke with them every couple of days, especially before and after a surgery. On phone calls, Oblon says Christine “asked a lot of medical questions, like, ‘what do you think is going to happen now?’” Due to her prior nursing experience, Oblon was able to tell them what to expect, and to offer words of encouragement to both Jim and Christine.
During that time the Cotes received cards, notes, messages of prayer and support, as well as Masses being offered for Jim’s healing.
On his end, Halstead had many people praying for Jim and Christine. Besides his church, he had 40-50 men in a men’s group praying. In addition, “I had physical burns that were evident, and could be seen, and so people asked, and I got the opportunity to share the story and ask for prayers for them.”
Jim shared how vital it was for him to know and feel this loving and prayerful support, because many times he was ready to give up. In addition to dealing with excruciating pain from the burns and the process of “scrubbing” the dead skin off almost daily, he also struggled greatly with eating and sleeping.
“They tipped the odds in my favor,” he said. “It gave me the inner strength I needed to keep going.”
Jim spent almost two months in the St. Elizabeth Burn Center, and endured six surgeries. Even now, nine months later, his back looks like a patchwork quilt of varying skin color and stitches in uneven lines where the skin grafts were made, and he requires a nightly application of Vaseline to keep the skin from drying.
His story has inspired others to seek prayers for their needs, and to trust that God is with them in and through the support of community.
For Moon, the Cotes’ faith is inspiring as well. “Both Christine and Jim have a tremendously strong faith. They recognized God’s presence and his grace and blessings in all the miracles, in how they were rescued and how quickly Jim healed. They never lost hope — Praise God!”
Christine’s take away from the whole experience is, “God is in control; God’s perfect timing is perfect; God provides; and God is real!”
“Bad things are going to happen, but when they do, God is with you every step of the way,” Jim said.
(Linda Oppelt is administrative assistant for The Colorado Catholic Herald.)