Tragic Accident With A Happy Ending
I've heard many times through the years, "It’s always in God's time, not mine." In this story you will see firsthand how God is at work in our lives. It was only through His miraculous will that these series of incidents could occur.
On New Year’s Eve 2004, as I was traveling north on Interstate 95 from St. Augustine, I saw a huge plume of smoke in the sky ahead on the Interstate. I immediately said, "Oh, Lord, I hope that’s not an accident" and said a quick prayer for anyone who might be involved.
Shortly thereafter, with smoke still billowing, the traffic came to a halt and Life Flight helicopters landed to airlift the injured. I knew it had to be bad but when I arrived on the scene, I'd never seen a more horrific sight.
The van that a family had been traveling in had caught fire upon impact and everything within the vehicle had melted. Fire Rescue personnel were scraping the melted debris from the Interstate surface. I knew there were serious injuries, maybe even casualties. I said another prayer for that family … whoever they might be.
The following day, I read in the newspaper that the family in the accident, a mother, father and six children were traveling in two vehicles. They were moving back to Ohio because they could not find jobs or affordable housing in St. Augustine.
One of the children, the oldest son, had died in the fire, confirming my worst fear. One daughter was critically injured and two others were seriously injured. A benevolent fund was started to help the family with medical expenses, so after hearing that, I sent in a contribution.
I also made the decision to write to the Extreme Home Makeover television show about trying to help the family by building them a home. I never heard back from the show. Time passed and I didn’t hear anything more about the family either, but I hoped that somehow, someway, someone would help them. Little did I know ‘that someone’ was going to be me!
A year and a half passed and I was sitting in my office at Habitat for Humanity in St. Augustine when I overheard a conversation by a woman who had come in and was telling our receptionist the same story I've written above.
She was the oldest daughter of the family who had been in the horrific accident. Heather Gaughan, age 26, told of the accident, of how her parents had abandoned the children and how she had recently gained custody of all of her siblings, five in total.
The story broke my heart, but I did not step out of my office to say I had seen the accident, that I had sent in a check, or that I had contacted the television series. Heather Gaughan sounded like one of the most responsible 26-year-olds in the world and I wanted her to apply for a Habitat for Humanity home without any of my influence or encouragement.
I did not want to get her hopes up in case, for some reason, she was not qualified. She began the application process that day and within a few short months was accepted into the program. Clearly, I could see this was no coincidence and that God had His hand in it all.
Heather and her siblings needed a six bedroom, handicap-accessible home because not only did she have three siblings who were developmentally-challenged but she also had a 13-year-old sister who had to have one lung removed and a foot amputated after the accident. That sister would one day be in a wheelchair and we wanted to plan for that.
The home Heather was renting at the time was far too small for her new family. In addition to that, the owner had recently placed the home on the market. With concerns that it might sell quickly and Heather and her siblings would become homeless, I immediately began putting together plans for a blitz build. In Habitat for Humanity terms, that is the building of a home on an accelerated construction schedule.
Our Habitat for Humanity affiliate didn’t own a parcel of land large enough for the six-bedroom handicap-accessible home that the Gaughan family would need so I approached the director of the St. Johns County Housing Department, Tom Crawford, about donating a lot to the family. Tom was a close business friend of Habitat’s, very kind-hearted and always wanted to help others. He was able to get back to me within two days and stated that the County would indeed donate a parcel of land for the family.
I knew we would need a substantial amount of money to build such a large home so I met with Derek May, the publisher of the St. Augustine Record. The Record had run articles about the Gaughan family and the accident so they were aware of the circumstances and felt a personal connection to them. After checking with the president of their parent company, Morris Communications, The St. Augustine Record agreed to sponsor the home at the full amount of $75,000.
That afternoon, I called one of Habitat’s Board Members, Dennis Ginder, who was division president of Mercedes Homes at the time. Without a second thought, Dennis agreed to supervise the build stating that his company had participated with Extreme Home Makeover in Orlando the previous year and he knew they would be on board with the project. Dennis committed to providing the volunteers needed and he actually thanked me for asking Mercedes Homes to be a part of this special build!
A few days later, I received a call back from Shands Jacksonville, the hospital where the Gaughan children had been cared for after the accident. They, too, committed to send hundreds of volunteers to help build the home and would provide lunch for everyone on site each day.
Donations of money and materials poured in over the next few months and in the spring of 2005, a six bedroom, 1600 square foot, handicap-accessible home was built for the Gaughan family during a seven-day blitz build in St. Augustine. It was amazing to see the home go from a vacant lot one day to a fully-built, brand new home one week later. At the dedication, hundreds of people came to see the finished product and to wish the family well.
Heather Gaughan is truly an amazing woman who accepted the responsibility of raising her five siblings. Since then, she has become a wonderful Habitat for Humanity homeowner, (as I knew she would) and she and her siblings continue to volunteer with the St. Augustine Habitat affiliate.
I am so very thankful that God led Heather and her family to our door and that He blessed all of us with this miracle!
© Diane Quick-Machaby
Diane Quick-Machaby is a native Floridian living her entire life in North and Central Florida. She has two grown daughters and has lived in the Jacksonville area for over 28 years.
After being a Stay-At-Home Mom, Room Mom, PTA Mom and Community Activist, Diane began her career working with nonprofits in Northeast Florida. Since the early 1990’s, she worked for the City of Jacksonville’s Keep Jacksonville Beautiful Programs, Habitat for Humanity in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, and Home Again St. Johns, an agency that works directly with the homeless of St. Johns County.
In 2015, Diane joined her husband to start their own business, Art 4 Charities, which partners with nonprofits in their fundraising efforts.
Diane and Terry Machaby live with their long-haired calico cat, Scarlett, in Nocatee, Florida and attend Crosswater Community Church.
When God Showed Up is the first book Diane has authored and published. She recently started working on her second and third books and should have them available in the near future.