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Family thankful for cable-barrier advocate

Highway safety
Dec. 26, 2012 @ 09:29 AM

Pictures of the wreckage tell you Myra Hutchison and the four children that she cares for as a nanny should not be alive.

The back of their Nissan Quest minivan crumpled like a tin can when it was rammed from behind Nov. 8 by a large bucket truck that witnesses say was traveling approximately 60 mph. Hutchison and the children were not moving in the westbound lane of Interstate 64 about one mile east of the 29th Street exit. A brush fire off in the distance had brought traffic to a standstill. The bucket truck driver didn't see the congestion ahead.

The impact from the collision buckled the minivan's roof, shattered the windows and sent Hutchison and the children spinning helplessly into the median. Hutchison is convinced her vehicle would have careened into oncoming traffic in the eastbound lane of I-64 if it weren't for the cable barriers in the median that wrapped around the rear passenger tire.

"After we got hit, it was the worst two seconds of my life. I didn't want to look in the rear-view mirror because I was afraid of what I was going to see," Hutchison said. "Everything was mangled except for four little heads rising up from under the seats."

Hutchison and the children -- August Meade, 9, Elsa Meade, 7, and 4-year-old twins Ansel and Oskar Meade -- suffered only minor injuries from the accident, leading her and the children's mother, Dr. Amber Kuhl, to believe that God and an angel by the name of Brian Keith Paul were watching over them that day.

"Even in Brian's death, he gave us life," Hutchison said. "His perseverance and his tenacity were part of a divine plan that would ultimately result in our lives being saved."

An advocate for safe travels

Paul, who owned a towing business in Barboursville, died in 2006 at the age of 43 after a battle with cancer. His name may sound familiar to Tri-State residents who frequent the Huntington Mall. The bridge on I-64 just west of the mall bears his name.

The honor was posthumously bestowed upon Brian Paul by the West Virginia Legislature. He wasn't an elected official or a decorated war veteran, and he certainly wasn't just a "dumb tow-truck driver," says his widow, Cathy Paul. Rather, he was a man whose efforts led to the placement of cable barriers along a stretch of I-64 following a series of deadly crossover accidents a decade ago.

"In reality, he saw too much pain and suffering on the interstate and he was determined to do something about it," Cathy Paul said.

In 2001 and 2002, 11 fatal accidents resulting in 15 deaths occurred on the 28-mile stretch of I-64 in Cabell and Wayne counties, according to statistics from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the West Virginia State Police. That accounted for more than one-third of the fatal accidents and nearly half of the deaths on the 184-mile span of I-64 in West Virginia during that two-year period.

Brian Paul, who was on the scene of several of these accidents with his wrecker, noticed a pattern. Drivers would lose control of their vehicles, skim across the 40-foot grassy median and crash into oncoming traffic. While they wouldn't prevent a wreck from occurring, Brian Paul believed a median barrier of some type would prevent additional carnage and cut down on the number of fatalities.

His daughter, Megan Paul, remembers her father researching vehicle crash data and different types of median barriers on their home computer for hours at a time.

"He would get all this information, set up meetings with highway officials and politicians, get rejected, and go back and do it all over again," Megan Paul said.

It was never in her father's nature to quit, Megan Paul said. In fact, the word "can't" was banned from their house. Megan Paul and her younger brother, Bryce, and sister, Lenza, knew that if you ever used that word in front of him, there would be dire consequences.

"To me, the cable barriers are a symbol of everything that my dad stood for," Megan Paul said. "He coached my softball team from the time I was 9 to 15 and all of the girls nicknamed him the 'meanest man in Barboursville' because of all of the exhausting practices he put us through. It was a nickname given to him out of love. We all knew he was teaching us that if we really wanted something in life we would have to work our butts off to get it."

The crossover accidents in 2001 and 2002 occurred with frightening regularity, prompting media scrutiny on the potential causes, town hall meetings at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena to discuss solutions and, finally, action.

In addition to stepped-up law enforcement patrols, the West Virginia Division of Highways installed nine miles of steel, cable barriers in the median between the 17th Street West and 29th Street exits in 2002. A rash of fatal, crossover collisions in 2003 between the 29th Street exit and Milton, including one that killed four people, led to the installation of cable barriers along that stretch of I-64 in 2005.

"It wasn't a victory dance type of celebration for Brian when he first heard they were going to install the barriers," Cathy Paul said. "He just said, 'Finally, it's about time that something be done.'"

Cable barriers have since been installed along 105 miles of the interstate system in West Virginia, according to the Division of Highways. The barriers are designed to function like a rubber band, absorbing the impact of a vehicle and slowing it down.

Scott Eplin, a district manager for the Division of Highways whose territory includes Cabell and Wayne counties, said he strongly believes the cable barriers have saved dozens of lives. For the three-year period between 2009 and 2011, there were only two fatal accidents resulting in five deaths along the 28-mile stretch of I-64 in Cabell and Wayne counties. Statistics for previous years were not immediately available.

"We have a target of zero fatalities, and we believe that the cable barriers are an excellent application given the traffic count for our localized area," Eplin said.

Eplin's sentiments are echoed by Megan Paul, who commutes from Barboursville to Charleston five days a week for her job as a sales representative with Frontier Communications. She saw the effectiveness of the barriers first-hand last winter when a co-worker who was following her home from work on a snowy evening lost control of his vehicle and slid into the median.

"Every time I drive by a car that's driven off the road into the median, I just say to myself, 'Thanks, Dad,' " she said.

Families form a bond

A few days after Kuhl's children and Hutchison were involved in the accident, Kuhl told her brother-in-law, Torin Walters, that she would one day like to meet the person who was responsible for placing cable barriers on I-64 and thank them.

"My brother-in-law just looked at me and said, 'I know who it was. It was Cathy Paul's husband,' " Kuhl said.

Walters, a radiologist, knows Cathy Paul because she works in the cardiology department at St. Mary's Medical Center. He encouraged Kuhl, an obstetrician, to find Cathy Paul the next time she was at the hospital. That day came Nov. 13, five days after the accident.

"I thanked her for the advocacy that she and her husband had so tirelessly worked at with the barriers," Kuhl said. "In my opinion, it helped save the lives of my children and Myra. What a legacy for him to be able to leave."

Hutchison, the nanny, had her own meeting with Cathy Paul and Megan Paul about two weeks after the crash. The Pauls shared funny stories about Brian and how his "never-say-quit" attitude remained intact after he was diagnosed with cancer in July 2005.

Since the initial meeting, Megan Paul said she and Hutchison have stayed in touch on Facebook and are forming a friendship. Meeting Hutchison also has brought more comfort to Megan Paul in dealing with her father's death, she said.

"I'm not saying I'm doubting God's plan, but I always questioned why my dad was taken away from us when he was so young," Megan Paul said. "I keep telling myself that he accomplished what he was supposed to do before his deadline. Knowing that Myra and those four kids walked away from that wreck reaffirms that. It was like my dad was telling them, 'Nope, you're not quitting today. You're going to live.' "

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD. He can reached by email at bchambers@herald-dispatch.com.

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