By Matt Garfield
Cindy Sease's shoes clicked across the floor as she strode to the microphone. Standing before an audience of 200 young men and women, she opened her message.
“A little over four years ago is where my story starts,” she told the group.
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On the clear, sunny morning of April 15, 2005, Sease's only daughter, Kelsey, was killed in a car accident while returning from a spring break trip to Myrtle Beach. The death shocked students at Rock Hill's Northwestern High School, where 16-year-old Kelsey performed on the dance team and charmed friends with her easygoing personality and goofball sense of humor.
The loss left Sease devastated. She struggled through long, miserable days, falling into fits of anger and crying.
Four years later inside the gym at Fort Jackson, Sease showed how far she has come.
She is one of 122 moms, dads and siblings who travel the state urging young people to stay attentive behind the wheel. The all-volunteer group, aided by the S.C. Highway Patrol, goes to school-sponsored Prom Promise events, pretrial intervention programs, military bases and companies with large numbers of young employees.
Their plea to listeners is simple: Put down the cell phones, avoid texting and keep your eyes on the road at all times. Program organizers believe South Carolina is the first state to formally organize a speakers' bureau like this one.
For Sease, the role has provided a purpose that seemed gone forever after Kelsey's death.
“This helps me feel like I'm doing something in Kelsey's memory,” Sease said. “It helps me feel like her death wasn't totally in vain. In a way, I'm carrying on her attitude in life.”
The soldiers at Fort Jackson sat in silent attention as Sease recounted how her daughter died.
Kelsey and two friends from Rock Hill, Erica Lacey and Jeff Hinson, had spent a week at Myrtle Beach on a trip chaperoned by Lacey's grandmother, Maxine. The teens hung out on the beach, listened to music and visited Barefoot Landing, where Kelsey got her picture made with a baby tiger.
They left for home on a Friday morning. At 9:40 a.m., on a straight stretch of Interstate 20 east of Columbia, 16-year-old Lacey veered off the left shoulder, overcorrected and swerved off the road once more, hurtling into the median and slamming into a pair of trees, an accident report shows. The cruise control was still set at 70 mph when the Mustang came to a stop.
Lacey and Hinson survived. Kelsey, seated alone in the back, was killed instantly when the rear half of the car was crushed by a tree, authorities said.
Days later, Sease and her husband, Mike, made a discovery about what apparently happened on the trip home. Crews pulled from the mangled car a pair of disposable cameras.
The final three photos were taken that morning on I-20. One photo shows Kelsey in the back seat, poking out her tongue with a playful expression on her face.
Visible in another photo is a mile marker on I-20 that corresponds to the mile where the crash occurred. The timing leaves one conclusion for Sease: The teenagers were playing with cameras during the trip, and the last photo came moments before the crash.
“I don't know how to tell you what it's like to sit there in the Walgreen's parking lot,” Sease told the audience at Fort Jackson. “And look down at that picture and see her smiling and goofing around – and know that a minute later, Kelsey was dead.”
For a year after the accident, Sease pretended she was moving on. She continued to work as an insurance claims representative at State Farm on Porter Road, where her job was to listen to people describe their car wrecks.
“I tried to be what other people expected of me, to go back to work and be fine,” Sease said. “After a year of doing that, the anniversary hit and I was just like, ‘I can't do it any more.'”
Sease quit her job and started seeing a counselor. Another breakthrough came in the mail: A letter from the Highway Patrol inviting her to Columbia for an annual press conference to encourage seat belt usage.
She decided to go. As she watched families share their stories, Sease came to a realization. “I had this initial thought of, ‘I want to do this,'” Sease said. “It was just a gut instinct.”
Sease has become a regular on the speakers' circuit. She shares kinship with other parents and relatives, including some with children who survived accidents.
“The very first time I spoke, my knees were weak and I was shaking like a leaf,” she said. “Each time since then, it's been a little easier.”