The scar on his forehead was the first thing Nick Kirby noticed when looking in a bathroom mirror in late June.
He was in Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. All he knew was there had been an accident. Once his mother Melissa filled in the blanks, Nick couldn’t hold back tears.
A month earlier, on May 22, Nick had been a passenger in a two-car collision at the intersection of 17th South and 45th West. He and Asher Strubel were riding in a 1995 Geo Tracker driven by Ivy Vigliotti. All three were classmates at Skyline High School. The Tracker was traveling west on 17th South when it failed to yield at a stop sign at the intersection with 45th West.
A 2005 Chevy Tahoe driven by Brittney Jamesen, 31, hit the side of the Tracker and the vehicles came to rest in the front yard of a corner residence.
Ivy and Asher, who were in the front seat of the Tracker, died from their injuries. Nick and Jamesen were taken to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. Jamesen lost her unborn child due to her injuries.
Nick had joined Ivy and Asher for an off-campus lunch trip that day, their fourth such trip that school year. They grew up together — Nick the runner, Ivy the soccer player and artist, Asher the baseball player.
“They were my best friends,” Nick said.
Nick didn’t open his eyes for two and a half weeks. A month after the crash, he was transferred from EIRMC to Primary Children’s Hospital.
Nearly five months later, the sophomore is regaining what he lost from his brain injury. His front yard and fireplace are adorned with painted rocks that were among the hundreds left on Skyline’s sidewalks the week of the crash, featuring grizzly paws, hearts and comforting messages. His friends frequently check in and hang out with him. He is running again, gearing up for Friday’s 4A District 5-6 championship meet at Freeman Park.
He was fresh off track season when the crash occurred, something his doctors credit for his survival. The sport that helped keep him alive is now providing Nick and his family with another kind of strength.
“I remember saying (in the hospital), ‘If he can just run again,’” Melissa said. “At first, his balance was really off. He went from running with a walker, then with crutches, then with nothing. It was amazing to be there for his recovery. We definitely had a lot of faith. I really feel that helped us through.”
Shock and uncertainty
May 22 was moving day for the Kirbys, who were settling into a new house on a neighboring street. Early in the afternoon, Melissa received a notification on her phone about a fatal two-vehicle crash at 17th South and 45th West.
The location made her nervous. It was three miles from Skyline and along her husband Dustin’s work commute to Shelley.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What if it’s one of them?’” Melissa said.
A few minutes later, Dustin called to ask if she had heard about the crash. He was on his way to Idaho Falls and had to take a different route into town because 45th and 17th were blocked by emergency responders.
A couple hours later en route to Ammon to run errands with 7-year-old son Austin, Melissa and Dustin received a phone call from neighbor and Idaho Falls Police officer Aaron Murdock. He told them Nick was in critical condition at EIRMC from injuries sustained in the crash. The Kirbys rushed to the hospital.
Nick was unconscious, covered in tubes and wearing a hospital wristband reading “Alpha Doe.” Because Nick had no identification on him at the scene, it took more than two hours to notify his family. Murdock, who was off duty that day, identified him after driving to the hospital once he heard Skyline students were involved in the crash.
“He told us, ‘I didn’t want to believe it was Nick,’” Melissa said.
At 3 p.m., Nick’s best friend and Skyline cross-country teammate Eli Sorensen was leaving his final class at Compass Academy. He noticed his teacher, older sister Cassidy Jardine, was viewing a video on her phone about the crash and he heard Vigliotti’s and Strubel’s names. He immediately wondered if Nick was with them.
Right before boarding the bus, Jardine stopped Sorensen to tell him Nick was one of the two people hospitalized from the crash. Sorensen’s phone began flooding with text messages containing questions and rumors about Nick.
“My sister took my phone and that was probably a good thing,” Sorensen said. “Because he was in the hospital, I had a prayer in my heart: whatever happens, let it turn out the way it is supposed to be.”
News traveled quickly at Skyline. Grizzlies head cross-country coach Sean Schmidt said he was horrified when receiving word of the students involved in the crash.
“It brought feelings of despair and thoughts of how are the families gonna deal with it and whether or not if Nick was gonna survive,” Schmidt said.
Nick underwent surgery for a lacerated spleen and had a rod put in his right leg to stabilize a broken femur. He was put in a medically induced coma for two and a half weeks due to concerns of a brain injury from a fractured skull and was connected to a ventilator, feeding tube and neck brace.
The experience left Melissa unable to eat or sleep. As a nurse herself, she was interested in every update on his prognosis. She credited community support and her family’s LDS faith for helping her cope. Neighbors, relatives, classmates and friends completed the Kirbys’ move and brought food so they could stay at the hospital with Nick.
“There was not an entire day the entire seven weeks where he didn’t have visitors,” Melissa said. “You’d start to cry and someone would show up.”
Nick’s first words six weeks after the crash were a joke.
“Hey Mom, guess what?” he said to Melissa through a speaking valve.
“What?” she asked.
“Chicken butt,” he replied, grinning.
He also grew two inches while hospitalized, prompting him to say, “Let’s hit my head again so I can get to be seven feet tall.”
The humor still prompts laughter from his parents and three siblings about an otherwise uncertain time. By the time he regained his speech, Nick had been transferred to Primary Children’s Hospital. His anticipated stay was four to six weeks. With the help of physical and cognitive therapy, he was released two weeks later and could walk, talk, operate his cellphone, eat, drink, dribble a basketball and use stairs.
In Idaho Falls, Sorensen was organizing a 5K that would send all proceeds to the crash victims’ families. He wanted to do something for everyone in the crash, and his mom suggested a race since he and Nick were runners.
Within two months, he had contacted Idaho Falls businesses and organizations regarding sponsorship, chosen July 15 as race day, selected a course at Snake River Landing and spread the word to his teammates, classmates, coaches and family. The result was the Run 2 Remember: 1 Town. 1 Run 5K, inspired by the messages Idaho Falls High School students left at Skyline in the days following the crash. The race drew more than 100 participants and included Nick, who finished on his bike with his teammates running alongside him.
“I watched him come in,” Schmidt said. “The people that were there were not only Nick’s friends, but people from the community that were just willing to donate their money and their abilities to try and make this a little bit easier on the families.”
Nick’s doctors advised him to avoid activity that could be strenuous to his head as he continues to recover, so he biked after returning to Idaho on July 8 and he did not drive. Dustin said Nick is still getting back the muscle he lost from being hospitalized.
“When he was in the medically induced coma, he lost 20 pounds,” Dustin said. “I had my doubts (that he’d return for cross-country). I figured it would be track season.”
Sorensen and Trey Corrigan accompanied Nick on his workouts. He eased from biking to running, working his way up to five miles by early August and adjusting to the rod in his leg.
“I didn’t have any endurance,” Nick said. “I’d go like a mile and I was so dead.”
The annual Tiger-Grizz Invitational on Sept. 8 was Nick’s first race since the crash. He said he is “still out of shape,” but doing OK. His short-term memory is returning.
Melissa said the most emotionally difficult part for Nick has been attending school without Asher and Ivy. Because he was hospitalized during the funerals, reality didn’t hit him until school started. He joined the Vigliottis on Oct. 4 — Ivy’s 16th birthday — for a tree planting at the soccer field in her honor and he also stays in touch with the Strubels and Jamesens. Melissa said none of the families harbor any blame about the crash.
Last year, he and Ivy shared a locker. This year, Sorensen transferred to Skyline and is now his locker buddy.
Sorensen said the last five months have reminded him to not take anything for granted and to keep his friends close.
“I haven’t been hanging out with Nick or my group of friends very long, but we still have a great support system,” Sorensen said. “We still have to support each other.”
That support goes beyond Nick’s physical comeback. As he continues to run, he has also found peace.
“Hard days at cross-country when you’re doing 12 400 (meter) intervals on the track, you thinking ‘This is super hard. Why am I doing this? Why do I do this sport?’” he said. “But on easy days, you’re thinking about your ability to run as long as you can. Running to me is a getaway from everything.”