Thomas Jefferson student shares story of best friend killed in DUI incident
Taylor Childers sat at Jefferson Memorial Park reminiscing.
She talked to her best friend, Tia, for more than six hours. She prayed and chatted with friends and family who stopped by. They recalled happy memories — dance parties the best friends held in the family basement, the laughs and silly stories they shared and Tia's love for climbing trees.
It was five years to the day since Taylor and Tia last posed together for a picture. Tia Wright, 12, of Pleasant Hills, was killed when a driver hit their truck along Gill Hall Road on April 5, 2008. Her head took its final rest on Taylor's lap.
Visits to see Tia now are at the cemetery.
“I still consider her my best friend,” said Taylor, 17, a Thomas Jefferson High School junior.
Taylor — who often tears up when she shares the story — talks about what happened to deter others from driving under the influence.
“I just want to make sure that no one else has to go through what I went through,” Taylor said. “When I see best friends having fun, I think of Tia and me. ..I think about her every day and what it would be like if she was still here.”
Taylor, of Pleasant Hills, last week received the Governor's Victim Service Pathfinder Award from Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala during an assembly at Thomas Jefferson High School for her advocacy to deter others from driving under the influence.
State Sen. Matt Smith (D-Mt. Lebanon) and state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Elizabeth Township) also presented her with citations. She has spoken before convicted offenders, local high school students and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Standing before more than 400 Thomas Jefferson High School juniors and seniors, judges, police and state leaders last week, Taylor told the story of losing Tia.
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Taylor and Tia became best buddies in third grade at McClellan Elementary School.
“She was always happy and liked to make people laugh,” Taylor said. “Even though she was my best friend, I looked up to her. She was so smart and pretty. She lived every day to the fullest.”
Tia's rambunctious personality and drive had those around her continuously smiling.
“She was a fun girl. She was like a fireplug,” said Tia's father, Karl Wright, 54, of Baldwin Borough.
“She wanted to look pretty. But if there was a choice between looking pretty or acting silly, she would act silly,” said Tia's mother, Cheri Wright, 52, of Pleasant Hills.
As sixth-graders at Pleasant Hills Middle School, Taylor and Tia were selected to play in an honors band concert at the high school. They spent the day together and afterward went to Tia's house.
A friend called and asked the girls to hang out. That's the last thing Taylor remembers, until she awakened inside Tia's father's truck.
There was an odd odor, and it was smoky.
Taylor saw her reflection in the shattered rearview mirror and realized there had been an accident.
She tried to wake up Karl Wright. The two of them looked around the car. They didn't see Tia.
Looking down, Taylor saw the back of Tia's head resting in her lap.
“I kept saying, ‘Tia, Tia, wake up, answer me,'” Taylor said.
Paramedics broke the truck window and pulled Taylor out.
“They kept telling me to look at them,” she said. “I just kept asking where Tia was.”
Hours later at the hospital, her parents broke down in tears.
“My dad looked at me and said, ‘Taylor, Tia's in heaven now,'” Taylor said.
This couldn't be real, Taylor said.
“It's still hard to believe. We were just so young,” Taylor said.
Taylor suffered a concussion and bruised ribs. Karl Wright suffered extensive injuries and never was able to return to his job as a maintenance mechanic and welder at First Energy. He now works in the tool room at the same company.
For months, Taylor said, she couldn't go past the site of the accident.
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Taylor could not share her story for a few years.
In the meantime, her grandmother, Andrea Holzer, 69, of Pleasant Hills, told Taylor and Tia's story as part of an “Impact Panel” in front of people who have been convicted of more than one DUI.
When Taylor entered eighth grade, she was ready to tell her story.
“I just feel that, in the accident, I was really lucky,” Taylor said. “I know that God has a purpose for me.”
“She does it for Tia,” said Taylor's mother, Michele Ringling, 39, of Pleasant Hills.
Taylor has spoken to other groups, including some at the Pittsburgh Steelers' training facilities.
“Every time I asked her to do something, she did it. She might have had some anxiety about it, but she still did it,” said Traci Van Dyke, victim services specialist with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “So often after tragic events, people forget. Taylor has made it her own mission to make sure people don't forget Tia.”
Taylor testified at the trial of Matthew Frank, then 17 and living in South Park. Police said he drank alcohol and smoked marijuana before wrecking his vehicle into the truck Taylor and Tia were riding in.
Frank was sentenced to less than two years in jail in 2011. He pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, and driving under the influence. He pleaded no contest to aggravated assault while driving under the influence.
“I feel like no time in jail would pay for what he did. It's hard to forgive him, but it's the right thing to do,” Taylor said.
Last year, she spoke at Clairton High School during prom season in the hope of deterring drinking and driving. She then spoke to students at Northgate High School and assisted a student at Seneca Valley High School with his senior project.
The talk at her school was the hardest for Taylor, her family said, but it was something she had to do.
“I hope sharing this experience with all of you will have an impact,” Taylor said.
Classmates gave her standing ovations.
Sharing her story was part of Taylor's graduation project, but has continued even after the project ended.
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Keeping Tia's memory alive is important to Taylor.
A wall in her bedroom still contains photos of the best friends acting silly. Taylor keeps a box of mementos that contain an oversized pair of glasses from a New Year's Eve. Tia was the last one to wear the glasses. “She's still a part of her,” Ringling said.
This year, Taylor held a fundraiser for Haiti in Tia's name.
“If Tia were here, I know her graduation project would be something to help people,” Taylor said. Because Tia couldn't do it herself, Taylor did it for her.
Taylor's actions have impressed those around her — including Tia's family.
“I'm just extremely proud of her,” Karl Wright said. “She's like Tia to me. When I hug her, it's like I'm hugging Tia.”
Seeing photos of Tia on display at the high school she never made it to was hard for her parents.
“It was rough coming up here today,” Cheri Wright said. “You just want people to live their life to the fullest. You never know when something could happen.”
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or email@example.com.