By Liz Welch
On March 29, 2012, 18-year-old Stephanie Kaufman talked her big sister, Brandi, into going to get pizza with her and friend Savanah Pierce, also 18. The Pizza Hut was roughly five miles away from their mom’s home in Houston, Missouri, but Brandi was hesitant. She worried the car wasn’t safe – her mom had just bought it used, and Brandi had a bad feeling about it. Stephanie insisted on going and on driving, and Brandi sat in the back – one of the only reasons she survived the crash that killed both Stephanie and Savanah. The other was Dustin Blair. When the then 26-year-old volunteer firefighter responded to the accident, he had no idea the woman he saved would be the woman he’d propose to a year later. The two plan to get married May 15, 2015. They shared their story with Cosmopolitan.com.
Brandi: I begged Stephanie to fasten her seatbelt. Neither she nor Savanah were buckled in. Stephanie laughed at me and said I worry too much. I do. I am 11 months older than Stephanie and have always played that role. Stephanie was the free spirit; I’m the cautious one.
We crashed about three miles from Pizza Hut and hit an embankment and then a bridge. I heard gravel being kicked up, like a shower of BB gun shots pinging against the metal. The car shook wildly, then screeched. Then everything went black and silent.
Dustin: I’d just finished cleaning up a six-car pileup and thought I was done for the day when I got the call. I raced as fast as I could to the scene, on Highway 63. When I pulled in, an EMT was loading a young unconscious woman who was covered in blood into the ambulance. I did not know then that it was Stephanie. All I knew was that she was barely alive. She had been driving the car – the woman who had been in the front passenger seat had died at the scene. Their car had slid down a 15-foot embankment. Then I learned there was a third victim still trapped in the car. I ran down to help and found two other firemen trying to cut the door open. The girl they were trying to save was covered in blood and would scream every time the car moved. It was so bad that the EMT said she was at risk of even greater injury from our rescue efforts. She needed to be stabilized – or she could die. So I smashed the back window and crawled in.
It was clear she was in terrible pain – she was whimpering, and then when I touched her, she started cursing at me. It took time, but I finally managed to place a plastic C collar on her neck to stabilize her spine and head. I had no idea where her injuries were and knew I had to protect her spine in order to prevent further injury. Once she was secure, the other guys pried the door open. That felt like forever.
Brandi: My next memory is waking up in the hospital, hooked to machines. Everything hurt. My mom was by my bed, crying, and I had no idea why. I have no memory of the accident. The doctors told me my body was like a bag of puzzle pieces: I had shattered my right arm from my shoulder to my wrist and fractured both hips in 13 places. My sternum moved five inches downward. I also had bleeding on the brain, so they had to keep me unconscious. I had no idea what day it was.
Dustin: After we loaded her into the ambulance that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. You see a lot of tragedy as a firefighter, but something about this girl stayed with me. I worried about her. I found out that she had been airlifted to Springfield hospital and decided to pay her a visit. She was still unconscious, so I sat with her mom and learned that her name was Brandi, and that the first woman I saw that day – the one who was still alive – was her sister, Stephanie. She died at the hospital. “Does Brandi know?” I asked. Her mother shook her head no and said, “I am worried that will kill her.”
Brandi: I drifted in and out of consciousness for days. I remember waking up once, five or six days after the accident, and seeing my godparents. “Where’s my mom?” I asked more than once. They said, “She’ll be back.” When she finally returned, her face was puffy and splotchy. I had a bad feeling and asked, “Where’s Stephanie?” It was all starting to come back to me. We had been in a car. We had just bought pizza. The car screeched.
Mom burst into tears. She did not say that she had just come back from Stephanie’s memorial service, but I knew then that my baby sister was gone. My grief at that moment was bigger than the pain from my broken bones. I went back to sleep hoping I’d never wake back up. I wanted to be with Stephanie.
I came close several times. During one of several incidents where I flatlined, I had a vivid dream. I was standing in front of golden gates with Stephanie. She was ahead of me and said, “You can’t come.” Then my grandpa Jack appeared. He had been dead for years. “Brandi,” he ordered, “Get your ass back down there.” Stephanie chimed in, “Mom needs you.” When I woke up, I told my mom this story and saw, by the look on her face, that it was true. She whispered, “I can’t lose you too.”
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Dustin: I went to visit Brandi once again – and this time got to meet her. She was still swollen and had cuts and bruises all over her face and arms. It was a miracle she survived. Her mom said more than once that I was the reason. I didn’t feel responsible, but I did feel intense relief that she was going to make it.
Brandi: I vaguely remember seeing Dustin standing next to my bed at the hospital that day. I did not make the connection though that this was the man who had saved me. At that point, I was still struggling with the fact I had survived. I spent the first month in rehab, where I had to learn how to walk again and how to do things with my left hand, as my right one was so badly shattered, it was useless. A month later, I was still in a wheelchair and needed help doing everything, including bathing and going to the bathroom, so my doctor sent me to a nursing home to continue my recovery. All of my injuries made it impossible for me to get around without help. My mom is as small as I am; she could not lift me and the house was not wheelchair accessible. Plus, she was still grieving for Stephanie. It was too much for both of us.
At 19, I was the youngest person in the nursing home by almost 50 years. Those days were the hardest – I really wished I had died that day with my sister. I missed her so badly. My survivor’s guilt was more painful than any physical healing. Why me? Why her? It did not make any sense. And then there were days where my physical pain was so intense that I was thankful that Stephanie did not have to suffer. She was in a better place.
My mom came to visit me often. I was still in rehab when she told me about the firefighter who saved me. I started thinking about this man and the role he played in my story. Finally, one day, I just blurted out, “Is he hot?” She smiled and nodded her head yes. I wanted to meet him and all the other guys who responded to that call that day – but not until I could actually walk into the fire department and shake each of their hands. That finally happened in November, five months after the accident. My mom set it up. We both thought it was an important part of my healing.
Dustin: Brandi’s mom walked in first. When Brandi followed, my heart stopped for a moment. I could not believe it was the same girl I had seen in the hospital only months before. My first thought was, “Whoa. She looks pretty good!” Everybody wanted to talk to her, so I hung back. Finally, I approached to say I had to go to work, which was true. Her mom suggested we take a picture together. We posed by the fire truck together, and I had a feeling this was the start of something big.
Brandi: I felt something similar. I cannot describe it, other than to say it was electrifying. I posted that photo on Facebook later that night and wrote, “If it were not for the man in the picture, I would not be here.”
At the time, he had a girlfriend. But four months later, my cousin invited me to go out with her boyfriend and his friend. It was Dustin. I could not believe he wanted to date me! I was still a mess in many ways. But Dustin had seen me at my worst. He had seen how far I had come.
Our first date was March 20, 2013 – less than a year before the first anniversary of the accident. Then my mom bought and planted a tree as a memorial for Stephanie in St. Peters, where she and I grew up. It is three hours away from where Dustin lives, but he came to the planting anyway. He brought Jordynn, his daughter, who was 4 at the time. I was so glad that he wanted to introduce me to her. We had only gone on two dates prior to that, but I knew it was serious and I thought he must agree. I also knew that this man saved me in more ways than one. He made me want to live again.
On April Fools’ Day, I posted on Facebook that we were engaged as a joke. It was only two weeks after we had met, and I knew my mom would think I had lost my mind. Instead, she wrote on my wall: “I wish it were true.”
Dustin: So did I. I knew Brandi was the one for me. It took me another year to pop the question. I asked her mom first. I wanted her blessing. She gave it to me.
Brandi: Dustin proposed on April 20, 2014. My best friend had just gotten married the day before. We were still in the hotel room we had rented for her wedding when he pulled the ring box out of his pocket and said, “Brandi Kaufman, will you marry me?”
I paused. My heart was shouting yes, but my thoughts were stuck on Stephanie. How could I move forward with a happy life knowing she’s not here? I thought of all the nights following the accident where I would just lose it – I’d curl up in a little ball and weep. I’d say over and over, “Why her? Why not me?” And every time, Dustin would wrap his arms around me and say, “There is a reason for everything.” I soon realized that the reason was him.
Dustin: Brandi thinks I gave her a reason to live again, but she also gave me one. Watching her heal, seeing her resilience, made me realize the strength of the human spirit. It made me excited about the future.
Brandi: Right before the accident, I had broken up with a boyfriend and was devastated. I thought that guy was the love of my life. I was crying to Stephanie days before she died, and I remember she said, “Forget about him! Something better always comes along.” She then quoted Marilyn Monroe: “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” Those words have become my mantra. I said yes to Dustin and to living a life that would make my little sister proud.