Closure to the crash

By Chris Berendt

August 17, 2014

Nearly half a century after the deaths of a young mother and her daughter, Virginia Wilkinson still thinks about the fateful day two lives were cut short along a stretch of Sampson roadway, forever shattering a family and haunting loved ones’ thoughts.

“Every time we get together we always end up talking about the accident. It was a very pivotal moment in our lives where things drastically changed,” Wilkinson said during a recent phone interview from her Virginia home. “It’s never left our hearts or our memories ever since it happened. It’s always there and we always feel the loss.”

The young mother and daughter were Wilkinson’s older sister Elois Levon Vaughan, 27, affectionately known as “Vonnie,” and her niece, Vonnie’s daughter Pamela Gayle Vaughan, 7. They were passengers in a Ford Mustang driven by Wilkinson’s brother-in-law Douglas Vaughan, 34 at the time. Vaughan’s son Douglas Vaughan Jr., then 4, and Wilkinson’s mother Emma Sue Elliott, then 44, were also passengers.

All from Petersburg, Va., they had just stopped for breakfast on the way to Carolina Beach and were some 200 miles away from home when tragedy struck.

As the 1966 Mustang occupied by the Vaughan family and Wilkinson’s mother traveled south on Highway 421 near Delway, a northbound 1967 Mercury suddenly swerved across the center line to avoid a pickup truck stopped to make a left turn onto a side road. The Mercury slid into the oncoming lane of the long straight strip of highway, about three miles south of Delway, slamming the driver’s side of the southbound Mustang.

Douglas Vaughan was the only one in the Mustang wearing a seat belt at the time and, along with his son, sustained only minor injuries. An elderly couple from Greensboro riding in the Mercury also sustained only minor bruises, with the man at the wheel crediting his seat belt with saving his life, investigating Patrolman Wallace Woolbright said, according to an article in the June 10, 1969 edition of The Sampson Independent.

Vonnie and young Pamela were not as fortunate, dying in the wreck just after 10 a.m. that Saturday, June 7, 1969.

As Wilkinson vividly recalled hearing the news of two loved ones’ lives suddenly and violently cut short and reflected on how the massive void it has left, she talked about the good Samaritans that tried valiantly to save them. It was a futile effort, as the injuries were too severe, but Wilkinson said thanking that family might offer a bit of closure to an episode that has loomed over the family for decades.

Wilkinson was just 18 years old that summer of 1969, a week from graduating high school.

That Saturday morning she was hanging out with a friend and had gone by the house to pick up her bathing suit because the two were going to lay out in the sun.

“When I got there, my brother-in-law’s brother and his wife were at my house. They are the ones who told me that there had been an accident and that my sister and niece were dead. Then, I received a phone call from my brother-in-law’s sister, who was following behind Vonnie and Pam’s car,” Wilkinson recalled.

Vonnie, the front passenger, died from massive head and chest injuries and the death of Pamela, who was seated in the rear seat, was attributed to serious head injuries. They were both pronounced dead on arrival at Sampson Memorial Hospital.

Jenny and her in-laws waited for Wilkinson’s brothers Wallace, who had gone to Virginia Beach, and Gerald, as well as her father, who was out with friends, to return home. A little more than a month before Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon, it was a time long before cell phones.

“It was just a normal Saturday,” said Wilkinson. “When they finally got back, we were able to tell them what happened. It was just a horrible, terrible time. It was bad.”

Wilkinson’s mother was injured badly in the wreck and, along with Douglas and Douglas Jr., was hospitalized at Sampson Memorial Hospital before being transferred to Petersburg General Hospital in Petersburg, Va.

“She had a broken arm and a gash in her forehead,” said Wilkinson, “and just trauma, of losing a child and a grandchild and the accident. I didn’t know if she would ever come out of that, but she did. She was a very strong woman.”

And following the wreck, Wilkinson’s mother talked of a “nice black family” that came to their aid during the wreck.

“She said they tried to do everything they could but that Vonnie had really bad head trauma and she basically bled to death. They were in the ambulance together, my mother and my sister, and she heard them say that (Vonnie) had gone. She kept talking about this family that helped and they tried so hard to help us, but they couldn’t.”

Those unknown Samaritans were recently a topic of conversation between Wilkinson and her brother Wallace.

“He said the thing he regretted is that he never got a chance to help the nice family who tried to help. The accident had happened on a very rural road and there was a family who came and did what they could trying to stop the bleeding and anything else they could. We never knew who those people were and he just wanted to be able to thank those people.”

With Wilkinson recently retired, she began to make inquiries, digging up old tattered newspaper clippings from her late mother’s scrapbooks, calling the library here and reaching out to The Sampson Independent.

Even if those who had witnessed and helped that fateful day have now passed, Wilkinson said she and Wallace wanted to share their gratitude with any relatives of the family.

“We just want to say thanks,” she remarked. “We know those people did everything in the world they could to save their lives. I know it’s been a long time, but we always wanted to thank them for what they did.”

There was a 10-year age difference between sisters, Jenny and Vonnie, but just prior to the accident what had been a mother-daughter type of relationship had become a close sisterly bond.

“We had just started to become super close. Before that, she was sort of like a mother figure to me, because my family worked on a farm … she pretty much had to assume a grown-up role working on the farm,” Wilkinson recalled. “She would tend to the younger children and was a caring, loving, wonderful person. She loved her daughter, her son and her family. She loved them more than anything in the world. She had a happy marriage and she was settled. I think she was very happy and had what she wanted.”

Her sister’s family often went on vacation and were headed to another that day in June. And when they went away, they always took Jenny and Vonnie’s mother.

“My mother was always ready to go anytime anyone wanted to go on vacation. My mother was there,” Wilkinson said with a chuckle. “She never drove so she was always happy to tag along.”

Looking back, though, Vonnie said that morning was eerily different.

“Vonnie said Pam had been crying all morning and she didn’t know what was wrong with her. I felt like, at some soul level, maybe she knew something was going to happen,” said Wilkinson, who broke down in tears as she spoke.

“It’s still fresh. No matter how long it is — it’s been forever — it’s still there,” she said.

Wilkinson remembered having to take exams the week after her sister and niece died and the understanding teachers who assisted in easing the process. Her mother, still in the hospital, was not able to attend the graduation ceremony.

“I was in the throes of having that distraction of tending to my mother, finishing school and starting a new job. I had a lot to distract me from the horror of it. Of course, later on, I would just find myself sitting in my car crying. It was sort of a delayed response.”

The siblings remained focused on caring for their mother for years.

“It’s something we always talked about. It wasn’t really something that was taboo. It wasn’t a pleasant thing to talk about — it didn’t seem we had a problem discussing it — but there was always pain that went along with it. The grief was always enormous,” she said.

She has talked to Douglas Sr., who does not recall much about the accident or the events just after, which Wilkinson attributes to shock. And while her mother has now passed, the feelings still resonate in the family.

Married with a grown son now, Wilkinson recently retired from a career as a medical transcriptionist. Her life went on but it was always affected by the events that unfolded on that stretch of Sampson roadway, some 200 miles from home.

“Life had to go on, but it left a tremendous hole and the hole has never been filled,” she attested. “Vonnie is always in our hearts and minds and Pamela was just becoming a little lady. She had been a little girl up to that point but it seemed like she was blossoming. It was such a tremendous loss. At every gathering it was like there should be somebody else here.

“It never went away.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.