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Kiski Valley native in wheelchair persists to save life, forge bond

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, April 18, 2014, 12:26 a.m.
Erik Fugunt, right, a native of Avonmore now living in North Carolina, helped police locate Brandon Jeffries, left, after Jeffries crashed his car near Fugunt's house. Jeffries' family then helped Fugunt, who is a paraplegic, create a video so he could enter a contest to get a wheelchair-accessible van.
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Erik Fugunt, right, a native of Avonmore now living in North Carolina, helped police locate Brandon Jeffries, left, after Jeffries crashed his car near Fugunt's house. Jeffries' family then helped Fugunt, who is a paraplegic, create a video so he could enter a contest to get a wheelchair-accessible van.

It was one of those clear, cold nights when sound travels easily that Erik Fugunt heard a familiar crash.

A loud boom, a roll, then more rolls, then nothing.

The former Avonmore and Bell Township resident might have not heard it all if he had not been working in his garage, tuning up a boat motor at 4:30 a.m. Oct. 6, 2013, in Mebane, N.C. Fugunt had momentarily taken off his headphones while jamming to music to leave the garage and take out the garbage.

In hindsight, Fugunt says 21-year-old Brandon Jeffries of Burlington, N.C., owes his life to that boat motor.

That's because when he went outside, he heard the familiar, sickening sound of a car wreck somewhere in the distance. He'd heard the same sound many times while attending rally car racing.

“When those cars lose it, they tumble and they make a very distinct sound,” he said. “That's exactly what I heard that night. It's unmistakable.”

Fugunt had his wife call 911. He drove around looking for the accident scene in a rural and wooded area.

Fugunt lives 1½ miles as the crow flies from a sharp bend in the road marked by three iridescent road sign arrows near a bridge and a creek. As Fugunt rounded the bend, he noticed that one of the arrows was missing.

“It's then that I got out of my vehicle and got my wheelchair as close to the embankment as I could.”

Fugunt has used a motorized wheelchair since surviving a motorcycle crash four years ago in Wilmington, N.C. Fugunt, now 29, is a paraplegic after suffering a crushed spine.

Still, with a flashlight, Fugunt peered as best as he could over the edge. There was the arrow sign. But it was too dark to see much else in the heavily wooded area.

“I knew somebody had taken it out,” he said.

“I couldn't go down in there and search,” said Fugunt. “That was killing me. If I had my legs, I'd be down in there.”

By then, emergency workers and police were searching. But still there was nothing but tire tracks going off the road, none coming back out. After about a half hour, the ambulance left.

But Fugunt persisted. “‘It's got to be down there,'” he told police. “I sounded like a broken record.”

In the darkness, a patrolman walked across the creek and found the wrecked car in a thicket of bamboo.

The car had cleared the creek and some vegetation on the other side on the fly. Rescuers had to cut down trees to get the wreckage and sawed off the roof.

All Fugunt knew about the crash victim was that he was pretty banged up but still alive.

“Brandon's car jumped the embankment and rolled end-over-end into a thicket of bamboo, which was hard to see into,” said Brandon's mother, Gwen Jeffries, of Burlington.

Persistence saves lives

Jeffries and his mother are thankful for Fugunt's persistence.

It's something he showed during his own recovery, said his mother, Jacqueline Dunkle, 50, of Mebane, N.C., a former Alle-Kiski Valley resident who once owned Salon & Day Spa in Plum.

Fugunt had flat-lined twice, his mother said. He broke many bones in addition to his spine, including ribs that shredded his lungs. Doctors induced a coma, and after five days, a simple squeeze of a hand acknowledged the start of a long recovery — albeit a partial one.

“It's not like he won a prize being alive,” said Dunkle of her own son's description of his change in fortune.

“Life is still a struggle for him,” she said. “You do the best with what you've got. Once you make that choice, you're going to be OK.”

Dunkle attributes her son's feisty spirit and persistent nature with getting him through his physical ordeal.

Jeffries said those same qualities saved his life, particularly Fugunt's persistence.

Two men get to meet

Fugunt stopped by the hospital soon after the accident to try to see Jeffries and meet his family, with whom he has stayed in touch during Jeffries' long recovery.

Because of his severe whiplash, Jeffries continues to deal with the effects of head injuries. He's been in occupational and speech therapy and has recovered about 85 percent, his mother said.

The two men met for the first time in March, when Fugunt's mother put together a video about the ordeal with the hopes of winning a new vehicle for disabled drivers as part of Mobility Awareness Month.

“I see this young kid get up and walk to my garage — that's Brandon. There's no way,” said Fugunt.

“I didn't expect him to live, much less walk to my garage. He has come so far and made such a turnaround.”

Brandon Jeffries is eternally grateful.

“If it wasn't for Erik,” he said, “I'd still be laying out in the woods.

“Erik survived his wreck for a reason,” Jeffries said. “And I can't wait to see what my reason was.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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