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Fort Drum soldier on leave helps three teenagers after car crash in West Virginia


Three Ohio families expressed their gratitude to a Fort Drum soldier who aided their daughters following an early morning car crash Easter Sunday in West Virginia.

Spc. Joel A. DiStefano stayed with the three young women, Makaila N. Norman, Reinna R. McPherson and Mallory N. Royster, all 18 years old, after the Chevy Trailblazer they were in rolled over multiple times around 6:30 a.m. Sunday on Interstate 77 near Beckly. The three seniors from Grove City High School in Ohio were driving home overnight from Jacksonville, Fla., where they had spent spring break.

“He may not consider himself a hero, but we do,” said Stacy A. Royster, Mallory’s mother. “We’re sure our daughters do, too.”

“Joel was just there,” Miss Norman said. “He was like a parent to all three of us.”

Spc. DiStefano, 25, who is preparing for his first deployment to Afghanistan, downplayed his contributions.

“There’s people that do a lot more than I do,” he said. “It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.”

Amy L. Norman, Makaila’s mother, said she was told the crash occurred when her daughter tried to change lanes because a truck in front of her was spraying water, hindering her visibility. However, there was an approaching vehicle in her blind spot, and when she tried to pull back into her lane she overcorrected and hydroplaned, causing the SUV to roll multiple times.

Miss McPherson was ejected from the vehicle and suffered several deep cuts and a concussion. The other two sustained various head, neck and arm injuries.

Miss Norman said she remembered very little of the crash, from about the time she attempted to change lanes.

“I remember headlights at angles there shouldn’t be headlights, then getting out of my car,” she said.

Spc. DiStefano, currently on block leave, came across the crash while driving from North Carolina to Huttonsville, W.Va., where he planned to spend Easter. He stabilized Miss McPherson on the ground until ambulance crews arrived.

“He did not leave Reinna’s side,” Miss Norman said. “She tried to sit up, but he made sure she stayed down.”

A pair of toll attendants on their way to work, Kathy Bishop and Stephen Tate, helped to divert traffic around the crash.

With the women’s phones lost or damaged in the crash, Spc. DiStefano provided updates and directions to Ms. Royster.

After the scene was cleared, Spc. DiStefano stayed with the girls for several hours at Raleigh General Hospital, Beckly, until they could be reunited with their parents.

“I didn’t think the girls being in the hospital alone was a good thing, especially on Easter Sunday,” he said. “I stayed there so the parents could be informed.”

“We just gave him the strongest hug we could ... we were so thankful,” Ms. Royster said.

Spc. DiStefano said his reward was seeing the parents arrive at the hospital and hug their daughters.

He left the hospital around noon to head home.

Miss McPherson was discharged Sunday night after about 12 hours at the hospital.

In the shuffle at the hospital, Bryan F. McPherson, Reinna’s father, said he did not have a chance to meet Spc. DiStefano, but said looked forward to an opportunity to do so.

“What an extraordinary young man he is,” he said. “It takes a lot of compassion to do what he did.”

All three girls are recovering at home in Ohio. Mr. McPherson said his daughter may require a few weeks to recover fully from her concussion. The three girls intend on graduating high school in early June.

The story would likely have ended there, but Ms. Norman called the command at Fort Drum to report Spc. DiStefano’s actions. She said she is also attempting to figure out a way to honor Ms. Bishop and Mr. Tate.

“If the good Lord didn’t put them there, I know we wouldn’t have our girls,” she said.

Spc. DiStefano said he was surprised after being called by his superiors asking about the incident.

Spc. DiStefano, an intelligence analyst from the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3-10 General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, will deploy to Afghanistan within the next month. The deployment will be his first.

In addition to making new friends Sunday, he may have landed himself a care package. Ms. Royster said she planned on organizing a shipment for Spc. DiStefano once he settled in Afghanistan.

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