'Jessica was his little angel'
Everyone remembers the weather that day. Hot. Sunny. A picture-perfect afternoon. How could anything so awful happen on such a magnificent day?
"It was August 14, 1993. The sun was shining and the sky was the bluest color you could ever imagine," Tina Haber recalls. Nearly 10 years after the tragedy, she remembers details with the indelible clarity that accompanies life-altering events. "I was home on break from college. It was four days before my 21st birthday."
She spent her birthday in the intensive care unit at Charleston Area Medical Center. On her milestone 21st birthday, family members buried her little sister.
Her sister, 11-year-old Jessica Marie Ayers, was part of her expanded family, a sibling she gained through her mother's marriage to Charley Ayers Sr. of Pinch.
On that fateful day in 1993, Tina took Jessie for a ride on an ATV. They joined the rest of the family for birthday cake. Then, Jessie begged Tina for another ride.
Tina took her, of course. "She was like that," Tina said. "She would pester you until you did what she wanted. Such a funny little kid. She had a fun spirit that anyone would fall in love with."
They were having a great time on the ATV. Then, disaster struck. Rumbling down the hill on the four-wheeler, gleeful Jessie holding on, Tina heard the gears make an odd, growling noise. "We were flying down this hill. There were no brakes. I tried first gear, but it was jammed in neutral.
"I told Jessie to hang on. Maybe I should have told her to jump, but I didn't. She did what I said and hung on for her life. I was almost to the level ground when my wheel went into the ditch and drug us into a tree. We crashed."
Breaking the eerie silence that followed, she called to Jessie, asking if she was all right. Again and again, she asked. "She never said a thing."
A neighbor saw the injured girls — Tina in the ditch, Jessie lying beside the tree. He raced to the Ayers home. Alternating CPR with his brother, Charley Ayers tried to revive his daughter. "We had her breathing with a faint heartbeat," he said, "but she never regained consciousness. They lost her when she got to the emergency room."
One life was lost, another irrevocably damaged. Tina remembers sweating and chilling and feeling faint, knowing somehow that this was how it must feel to die. "If the paramedics had not gotten to me when they had, I would not be here."
Taken by helicopter to CAMC, she suffered life-threatening internal bleeding, a lacerated liver, crushed pelvis and a broken hand and arm. She required extensive surgery and extended rehabilitation to learn to walk again. She copes with chronic pain.
"The accident changed her completely," said Tina's mother, Joy Ayers, Charley Ayers' second wife. "She was in college studying to be a teacher. With the stress of the wreck, her sister dying and her fear of being alone at WVU with the injuries she had, she didn't go back to school. She was too scared.
"Even her personality changed. She used to be happy-go-lucky. Now, she's very serious. She doesn't do the spontaneous things she used to do. She won't get on a bike."
Every day, the family passes the tree with the bark torn off, the one the girls crashed into. "A neighbor offered to cut it down," Joy said, "but we'd still see the stump and that would be twice as bad."
Nobody agonizes over Jessie's death more than Tina. "Her life was taken at the blink of an eye, for something that I had no control over," Tina said, "and yet I feel responsible. This is something that I will have to live with the rest of my life."
"Please don't blame my other daughter for the death of her sister," Charley Ayers said. "If you have to blame anyone, blame me, for it is the parents who let their children on the ATVs."
The family fervently supports strict ATV regulations for young people. "They should wear helmets," Ayers said. "They ought to be more strict on it. I don't know if a helmet would have made a difference, but I am so sorry that I didn't ask her to wear one."
Jessie dreamed of becoming a doctor, he said. "She was very bright. She made good grades. She'd be kind of bashful until she got to know somebody, but then she was windy and asked a lot of questions. She was very curious. She was my baby."
"Jessica was his little angel," Joy Ayers said. "He always called her Jasper."
Joy and Charley Ayers had been married about a year when Jessie died. "We took each other's children as our own," Joy said. "Jessie called me mom, but she missed her mother a great deal." Jessica lost her mother in 1991 after an eight-year battle with cancer. "All she talked about was seeing mommy in heaven."
Tina likes to think that they're together. "Jessie always talked about heaven and that one day she would be with her mother. I believe Jessie is there right now, rejoicing and singing with the angels."
To contact staff writer Sandy Wells, use e-mail or call 348-5173.