The family of a woman and four children killed in a single-vehicle crash on their way back to Georgia from a reunion in Orchard Park is finding comfort in the fact the victims live on, in a sense, because their organs are helping others.
Twenty-four hours after a Town of Hamburg native, her three children and a foster child were killed when their van smashed into a tree on an interstate highway in Tennessee on Aug. 12, a team of about 100 medical personnel went to work to transplant their organs.
"Perhaps some other parent won't have to go through what I am (because their child survives with a transplanted organ)," Joel Oliver, father of three of the children, said Friday from his home near Atlanta.
"My children can live on in someone else and maybe I'll get to meet that person someday."
Killed in the accident were Patricia Ann Oliver, 42, her children, Jody, 14, Kristi, 13, and Ryan, 6, and a foster child, Danielle Green, 17.
Two other family members remainlisted in serious condition Friday in a Knoxville, Tenn., hospital: Mrs. Oliver's mother, Rose Burke, 72, and another foster child, Amber Ellis, 17.
Mrs. Burke was driving a 1996 Ford Windstar van when she apparently fell asleep about 2:30 a.m. and failed to negotiate a curve on Interstate 75 just north of Knoxville. The van smashed into a tree nearly 400 feet off the road at an estimated speed of 70 mph, with no evidence she applied the brakes, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
All five were pronounced dead at the scene. Mrs. Burke was wearing a seat belt but some of the others were not, police said.
"It was too late for their eyes, but they harvested hearts, kidneys, bones and connective tissue," said Mrs. Oliver's sister, Jean Smith, who also lives in an Atlanta suburb. "There were like 20 people working on each of them and helicopters waiting on the roof of the hospital. We were told that nine people received heart valves, so that makes us feel pretty good."
Mrs. Oliver, the former Patricia Burke, was born in Lackawanna, grew up in Hamburg and was a 1974 graduate of Frontier High School. She attended the Pittsburgh Art Institute and moved to Atlanta to work as a graphic artist for an advertising firm.
That's where she met Oliver and they were married in 1982. They had three children, but divorced in 1992.
"I still loved her, we just couldn't live together anymore," said Oliver, a printer. "We still took care of the children together."
Danielle had lived with the family since last fall and called Mrs. Oliver "Mom." "She finally found a family who loved her," Mrs. Smith said.
Mrs. Oliver has two brothers and other relatives in Western New York and returned for a Burke family reunion that attracted about 70 people to Chestnut Ridge on Aug. 9.
While in the area, she used a disposable camera to record some of their activities.
One picture taken at Hamburg Beach shows Mrs. Oliver facing the lake but turning back toward the camera. "There's kind of a silvery light and she's turning back as if to say goodbye. She's very much at peace, very happy," her sister said.
"Let me tell you what kind of girl Pat was," she went on.
"She quit her day job to stay home with Ryan, but then worked nights as a waitress at a Waffle House. Now you don't make a lot of money at a place like that, but she had such personality and was such a flirt that she would make $500 in tips from working three nights a week.
"When I went to her house, her apron was still on the kitchen table, heavy with coins."
The seven had left Mrs. Oliver's brother's house in Angola about 10 a.m. Aug. 11 on their return trip to Georgia and should have been home about midnight, Mrs. Smith said.
They have no explanation for why they were still four hours from home when the crash occurred at 2:30 a.m. the following day.
The family also is upset that the travelers didn't stop for the night -- as Mrs. Oliver promised they would if she got too tired to drive -- and that her elderly mother was driving, Mrs. Smith said.
The fact at least some of them were not wearing seat belts also is upsetting.
"We want other people to learn from this," Mrs. Smith said.