Arnold homeowner, car driver recount terrifying crash

Chuck Biedka
| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 12:19 p.m.

Sherry Ashbaugh was standing at the kitchen sink of her Arnold home Tuesday morning talking on her cellphone as she tended to her kids. Samantha, 5, and Brandon, 3, were in an adjacent room asking for water and their Wii video game to be changed.

Then the wall, ceiling — and her world — came crashing in on her.

Literally not knowing what hit her, Ashbaugh was clambering from beneath the rubble of her house and the car that had slammed through it.

Disoriented, Ashbaugh desperately struggled to reach her kids.

Somehow, everyone — Ashbaugh, 42, of 2125 Leishman Ave., her kids and the driver of the runaway car, Richard Swiklinski, 64, of the 300 block of Murray Avenue, Arnold — survived the crash relatively unscathed, leaving both adults thanking God on Wednesday.

Ashbaugh said she has a lot of bruising from head to toe and a chipped tooth.

She sat in the kitchen of her sister, Alicia Phillips, across the street from the heavily damaged house and recalled Tuesday's incredible mishap.

Ashbaugh knew she had been knocked under something, but she couldn't see what. Dust filled the air.

“You could smell plaster and dirt,” she recalled. “There was sheetrock and plastic. I could feel the plastic above me. I ripped the plastic open.

“And there were wheels. Wheels — wheels of a car! What was a car doing in my kitchen?” she had asked herself before turning to a more pressing question: How were her children?

“All I could think of was my kids. Where are they? Samantha and Brandon — how are they?”Ashbaugh had her glasses knocked off. Somehow, though, she was still holding her cellphone.

“I knew I couldn't call my mother, and my husband had just been called back to work after he was furloughed. I couldn't call him,” she said. “So I called my dad and screamed for help.”

Then Ashbaugh dropped her cell phone and gingerly and painfully climbed out from under the car.

She crawled over the back of the car and rubble, struggling to get to her kids, “who at that point hadn't said anything.”

No crying, no whimpering. The unsettling lack of her kids' voices and her silent prayers moved Ashbaugh forward.

“I screamed for help and heard my daughter say, ‘Mother — I can't help you.' I was crawling over the car on my way into the living room, and there they were.

“They were standing right there — and they were OK.”

She recalled neighbors and her sister coming in to get the kids out and help. Ashbaugh got her house phone, dialed 911 and screamed for help.

Motorist recalls little

Ashbaugh said she then was able to make her way to where her front door had been when she saw a man stumbling from the car.

“It was all like a dream,” she said.

The man was Swiklinski, a retired mill worker, whose first words in interview were to ask how Ashbaugh and the children were doing.

“I feel terrible about this,” he said in an interview in his living room up the steep hill from the crash site. “How are they? Is she mad at me?”

Swiklinski said he doesn't remember much after his out-of-control car smashed into a fence and the house, which sits at the T intersection of Murray and Leishman avenues.

His 2000 Ford Taurus was stopped by an interior staircase and nearly went through a side wall in the kitchen.

“My car doors wouldn't open, but the electric windows worked,” Swiklinski said. “I climbed through a window.

“I must have been in shock. Someone helped me to sit down on the porch, and they took me to the hospital.”

Swiklinski said he has lived on Murray Avenue about 30 years. He's driven down the steep hill hundreds of times in the winter.

Arnold police said only that their investigation continues. Among the evidence they are considering is video footage from a next-door neighbor's house of Swiklinski's car coming down the hill.

Lack of serious injury ‘a miracle'

Swiklinski agreed with his son, Brad, who said there was divine intervention or someone would have died.

Ashbaugh's husband, Harry, agrees.

Harry Ashbaugh was at work at the Oakmont Country Club when he got the call. He was numb when he arrived at the house.

He didn't immediately know how his wife or kids were.

He learned that she had been flown to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Remarkably, she was released Tuesday afternoon.

“We got home at about 5 p.m. I still haven't been asleep,” he said at about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. “There has been too much confusion.”

On the ride from the hospital, Sherry Ashbaugh called her grandmother, Blanche Bigley of the Apollo area.

“I told her what had happened and that I was OK,” Ashbaugh said. “She said she had seen it on TV.

“And then she added something. She said, ‘Today people needed to see a miracle,' and I guess she was right about that.

“It was only by the grace of God that we were OK,” Ashbaugh said. “It was a miracle.”

Uncertain aftermath

Ashbaugh's daughter clings to her mother now and her son slept with her Tuesday night.

“We don't know what we have with them down the road,” she said. “My daughter keeps asking where we will stay. And what happens to the house.”

Ashbaugh remains concerned about the driver, Swi-klinski, who she doesn't know.

“I hope he is OK, too,” she said.

Swiklinski said he “doesn't know if I can ever drive again.”

His son pointed out, “It's early, Dad.”

Ashbaugh and her husband don't know if they'll move out of the gray, cedar-shake sided house that belonged to her great-grandmother and then her grandmother.

“We have a lot of history here,” Ashbaugh said. “... But it may be time to move.”

In the short term, the Salvation Army will pay for the family to stay in a hotel.

“After that? We don't know yet,” Ashbaugh said. “It's too early.”

Arnold's city engineer said the house wasn't condemned, according to code inspector Rick Rayburn, but would need extensive repairs.

“He said it could be repaired if they want to,” Rayburn said. “It's an insurance issue now.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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