This five-year-old saved her family's lives
Angela Shymanski was making good time. It was 8.30am and the kids were fed. Their eight-seat car was fuelled and packed with all the necessities for a road trip: a pop-up tent, toys and snacks for five-year-old Lexi and, for ten-week-old Peter, a pink blanket and seven days’ worth of clothes—all of which had been worn. No matter, thought Angela. It was 26C in central Alberta, Canada—the hottest June on record—so her infant would better endure the eight hours home to Prince George, British Columbia, in nappies.
The 28-year-old had driven these 500 miles alone before. She had college friends scattered across Alberta, an older sister in Calgary and a sister-in-law in Sylvan Lake. Her husband, Travis, an instrumentation mechanic at an oil refinery, couldn’t come on the week-long holiday, but Angela, a swimming and first-aid instructor, was eager to show off baby Peter to her friends.
Lexi's brother Peter after his life-saving brain surgery
It was an important trip for Lexi, too. The morning they’d left Prince George—June 1, 2015—marked the beginning of the 100-day countdown to nursery. Angela was keen to fill the holiday with fun; by week’s end, Lexi had seen gorillas at the Calgary Zoo, picnicked with cousins, become dizzy on amusement park rides and made sandcastles at the beach.
As she was driving along Icefields Parkway, Angela accidentally missed her first turnoff and, rather than loop back, decided to continue west on a slightly longer but more scenic route through the Rockies. The lost time would have been negligible were it not for a 30-minute stretch of road construction. The constant stops and starts had begun to bother Peter, who was now shrieking in the back-facing car seat next to Lexi. This calls for a nursery rhyme, Angela thought. She inserted a CD and hoped for the best.
In no time, both children were slumped in their car seats.
Once she was finally out of the construction zone, Angela accelerated to just below the 60-mile-an-hour speed limit. The hum of the road and the warmth of the sun, combined with the lulling music, soon began to have a relaxing effect, so Angela opened the window, hoping the blast of wind would keep her alert as she searched for a rest stop.
Angela’s eyes closed for just a few seconds.
Exactly one year earlier, Lexi was receiving the most important lesson of her young life.
"Lexi spotted her mother: 'Wake up, mum!' she screamed. 'Please wake up!' "
The Shymanskis, like many Jehovah’s Witnesses, observe family worship night. On this particular night, they were preparing Lexi for a potential future emergency—a cousin of Travis’s had recently lost his home in a flood, and they wanted to be ready in the event of such a scenario.
Together, the young Shymanski family filled a duffel bag with water bottles, canned food, a first-aid kit, some cash, CPR masks, spare clothes and toys, and tucked it in a closet by the front door.
Then they showed Lexi the smoke alarms: if they start beeping, said her parents, hurry to the driveway. Don’t go searching for anything or anyone, just get help and don’t look back. To demonstrate, the three of them walked together barefoot to the nearest neighbour’s place, half a mile away, as they felt that calling 911 wouldn’t be practical for a child who still had a limited vocabulary and sense of geography.
Lexi absorbed every instruction. This became apparent months later, when a smoke alarm went off during dinner. Before Angela could reset it, Lexi was running to the driveway. She never looked back.
The first thought that crossed Lexi’s mind: Who turned off the power?Seconds ago, it was a sunny day. Now it was dark, her neck hurt, the car horn was blaring and Peter was wailing.
Lexi reached in his direction but hit a force field—her tent had flopped forward and popped open. The girl fished around the thin canvas and felt her baby brother’s hand.Lexi stretched for the door handle, but it was out of reach, hiding under a big white pillow—one of the side airbags that now obscured all the windows. She pushed on the pins of her five-point harness, something Mummy and Daddy always did for her. Once they were unclipped, Lexi managed to wriggle out of the straps to exit the car, but when she pulled the handle, the door was stuck.
Turning onto her side, Lexi kicked at the car door until it eventually flopped open, filling the car with sunlight.
That’s when she spotted her mother in the front seat, sleeping on an even bigger pillow. “Wake up, Mum!” she screamed. “Please wake up!” Angela didn’t respond.
Though it hurt to turn her head, Lexi looked over the side of the SUV and stared down a steep hill—it was just like the indoor rock-climbing gym she liked to visit, but with boulders the size of beanbag chairs, trees and no ropes. The only thing keeping her family from rolling down the incline was the large evergreen with which the vehicle had collided.
"Lexi pointed into the ditch, to the crushed SUV. Jeremiah tore down the incline"
That would be the only time Lexi looked down, or back.
Her flip-flops had flown off in the accident, but Lexi felt no pain as she crawled over glass, rocks, branches and pine needles and up the embankment to the highway her mother had driven off. It was just as she’d practised.
The Jiriks were about halfway through their journey when they pulled over for a roadside picnic.They weren’t in any rush, having decided to take the scenic route through Jasper National Park, tacking two more hours onto their drive from Wasilla, Alaska, where they lived, to Minnesota, where Loni and Jeremiah had met and started their family. When their bellies were full and their bodies were rested, the couple, their three children and their two dogs climbed back into the silver minivan for the final stretch.
No sooner had Jeremiah steered onto the highway when Loni yelled, “Stop!” She pointed some 15 yards ahead, to a tiny blonde child in shorts and a tank top climbing out of the ditch. Jumping up and down and waving her arms at traffic, the barefoot girl seemed to have materialised out of nowhere. Jeremiah flicked on his hazard lights and pulled over.
“Help!” Lexi cried out as she ran toward them. “My mum needs help!”
Jeremiah panned the tree-lined road. There was no one around. “Where’s your mama?” he asked Lexi. The child pointed into the ditch, to a crushed SUV. Without hesitating, Jeremiah—an avid hiker who makes his living installing power lines at high altitudes—tore down the incline in his sandals.
Lexi tried to follow, but Loni convinced her to stay back. The girl’s neck was bruised, and she could barely move it. The woman summoned Isaak, her oldest child, to assist, but told her daughters to stay behind—she didn’t want them witnessing a potential tragedy.
Angela Shymanski was beginning to regain consciousness when Jeremiah came hurtling down the hill. She looked over at the stranger, her face scraped and swollen. “I’m so stupid,” she told him. “I should’ve pulled over sooner.” He could barely hear her words over the blaring of the car horn; the sound of the baby crying didn’t even register until Angela mentioned Peter.
Lexi being airlifted to hospital
The seat the infant was attached to had become unhinged and had flipped forward, leaving Peter upside down in his harness, with little room between the back of the steel-framed seat and the floor. Jeremiah unlatched the half-naked baby, wrapped him in his blanket and climbed up to Loni, grabbing at the evergreen’s branches with his free hand.
His wife had been trying to call 911 but couldn’t get clear reception at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. She gave up and started flagging down passing cars; five zipped past before a jeep finally pulled over.
The driver, Lise Lord, was en route to Calgary with her business partner, Rick Nowicki, for a meeting. Long before Nowicki had turned to financial coaching, the 50-year-old had been a firefighter/emergency medical technician. Although more than a decade had passed since he’d been involved in a wreck like this, he knew that whoever was still inside the vehicle had to be stabilised.
Nowicki was preparing to make his way into the ditch when Jeremiah reappeared with something wrapped in pink—a baby girl, he said to Loni, passing off the child before returning to Angela with the former firefighter in tow.
“That’s my brother!” corrected Lexi, who, following a once-over from Nowicki, was lying on Isaak’s sweater while the teen held an icy bottle of water to her neck. Loni rocked the baby in her arms. About twice a minute, Peter would stop wailing, stare into the sky with a frozen expression, then shriek again. Loni, a special education teacher for 16 years, had seen this happen with her students and recognised it as seizures.
Down the embankment, Angela was now sitting sideways, trying to open the driver’s side door. She kept referring to herself as a bad mother. “Let’s not talk like that,” said Nowicki. “This could happen to anyone.” Anxious to comfort her, he opened the door, pushed aside the airbag and showed Angela her children. There, at the edge of the road, was Peter in Loni’s arms and Lexi in the care of Isaak and Lise.
Once Angela had calmed down, Nowicki began going over the injury-assessment checklist. The seat belt had bruised her chest but more alarmingly, the woman was complaining of severe pain in her lower back. “Can you move your hands? Can you squeeze your fingers? Wiggle your toes,” said Nowicki. Everything seemed to be working, but he still wouldn’t allow her to leave without a stretcher.
"The rescuers needed ropes to get up and down the embankment that Lexi had climbed alone and barefoot"
Instead, he asked Angela for her husband’s phone number—he’d give it to the first responders Loni had called using a satellite radio from a passing forestry worker. While he wrote the digits on the dusty, cracked windshield with his finger, Jeremiah, worried the smoking vehicle would catch fire, was fishing under the bumper for the battery cords. He wrapped his hand around the hot wires and tore at them until the horn finally cut out. The three of them waited quietly for 20 minutes, with only the sound of birds chirping, until ambulance sirens broke the silence.
The rescuers—paramedics and Royal Canadian Mounted Police—needed ropes to get up and down the embankment that Lexi had climbed alone and barefoot.
Travis Shymanski had just finished lunch at his desk when Angela called, mumbling something about an accident and about the kids being OK. In less than an hour, the 29-year-old was on a plane to Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital, where his wife had been flown by helicopter. After going into shock at Seton General Hospital in Jasper, Angela had been resuscitated by doctors. She was now conscious, but she’d suffered a dozen injuries to her head, lungs, liver and back.
Twenty-four hours after the accident, the situation looked slightly better for Angela. She had permanent nerve damage in her left leg, seemed to be suffering some amnesia and was told she’d likely never again swim vigorously, do gymnastics or run competitively—but she might be able to walk. Peter, on the other hand, was struggling to keep his formula down after being discharged. Doctors readmitted him and did a CT scan to check for brain damage. The baby had intracranial swelling and bleeding, which was reduced with surgery. After a few days of worry, it was determined that he’d be fine.
The Shymanski family at home after the incident
Lexi, who refused to leave her father’s side, had little more than a few scratches and bumps on her hands and feet. However, Travis was worried about potential psychological strain and didn’t want his young daughter spending more time in the trauma ward than necessary, so he sent her away with his sister, then left to pick up lunch for Angela and himself.
His phone rang as he crossed the street outside the hospital. “Is this Travis?” asked a gravelly voiced man. It was Rick Nowicki, who had memorised the number Angela had called out to him.
Nowicki lived in the town of Hinton, 200 miles outside of Edmonton, and was in the city for an appointment. He was calling to ask if he could bring flowers for Angela and a teddy bear for the child who had saved her family.
Lexi’s role in her family’s survival was news to Travis. Angela had told him what she’d heard from Lexi—that his daughter had escaped from the car and gotten help—but he didn’t know the details of her courage. “She’s a remarkable little girl,” Nowicki told him.
In November 2015 the Royal Canadian Humane Association invited the family back to Edmonton. The charity wanted to award Lexi a medal for bravery.
At the awards ceremony, a reporter asked the child about her plans for the medal. She replied that she wanted to take it to school for show and tell. However, once she arrived home in Prince George, Lexi changed her mind. She decided to bring baby Peter instead.
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