BILLINGS — Two teenagers from Lodge Grass are recovering in Billings hospitals on Sunday after sustaining serious injuries when they were knocked off of the Interstate 90 bridge over the Yellowstone River during a 30-car pile-up that happened in Billings on Saturday.
“They are pretty broken up, but they are in good spirits. They are doing as best as they can right now. We’ll be up here for a while getting repaired, because that broke them up. But they are young, they’re strong," said Joan Whiteman Runshim, the teens' grandmother and guardian.
Celea Poitra, 19, and Gahge Whiteman, 17, both have numerous broken bones and other injuries after falling about 60 feet from the I-90 Yellowstone River bridge.
The teens were in their grandmother's pickup truck near the start of the pile-up. “We were just going to a dental appointment up on Shiloh Road and everything was fine until the bridge. Then all of a sudden we had to hit our brakes. We couldn’t even stop," said Joan.
- CLICK: PHOTOS FROM THE SCENE
Joan said it was snowing when the family left Lodge Grass to drive to Billings. It stopped snowing when they reached Garryowen and picked back up again when the family entered Yellowstone County near the I-90 rest stop between Billings and Hardin. Montana Highway Patrol said slick roads were a factor in the pile-up crash. “We were towards the front, and behind us they were just piling up bad with cars going up on top of each other." Joan said.
The family's truck also had Devin Stump, 12 and Jayceon Fire Bear, 7, two more of Joan's grandkids, riding in it. After the truck came to a stop, Celea and Gahge saw a vehicle with a mother and two kids inside hanging partially off of the guard rail of the bridge. “Celea and Gahge looked back and said, 'There’s babies and that car is going to go over the bridge,' and they jumped out and they were gone. I looked for them and looked for them. Everybody was milling around trying to find everyone, get people out of the cars. They kept hitting," Joan said.
Before the teens were able to pull the children and mother out of the car, vibrations from other vehicles hitting the pile-up launched both of them off of the bridge to the ground about 60 feet below. “The vibration of all of the cars getting hit vibrated them off when those semis kept hitting the cars, they got knocked off. They didn’t jump. They were knocked off of the bridge," Joan said.
The mother inside the precariously-perched vehicle was Kylee Marie. She told MTN News that her vehicle was hit by three semi trucks and several other vehicles. Marie said a man named Ryan Doran and another person eventually got her kids out of the vehicle and brought to safety on the side of the road.
“I went back towards the pile-up and I kept calling Gahge, calling Celea. I could hear Gahge hollering. I was so afraid they were under one of the cars or something. People were trying to get out of their cars. It was traumatic," Joan said.
Joan, Devin, and Jayceon eventually spotted Celea because her red jacket stuck out against the earth. Then Joan learned from a news photographer on scene that there were two people that fell. Joan said first responders cut a chain link fence on the east side of the bridge to reach the teens.
Joan said it is very much in her kids nature to go out of their way to help someone else. She said the family has been receiving calls from Hardin High School staff, where Celea graduated and Gahge currently attends, speaking on their compassion. “The school, the counselors, everything, they called and they said we can understand why they jumped in to try to help, because they are compassionate kids. They take after me," Joan said with a smile and laugh.
Celea broke her spine in three places, and sustained a broken pelvis, broken ankle, and lacerated kidney. Joan said she was in surgery on Sunday to remove bone fragments from around her spine and will have another tomorrow to stabilize her pelvis. “Thank God. So far, she is not paralyzed," Joan said.
Gahge had surgery on Saturday. He sustained a broken leg, fractured pelvis, fractured neck, punctured lung, and dislocated shoulder.
With knowledge that her grandkids are on the mend, Joan said the family is starting to calm down after a traumatic day. “I think we’re finally settling down. I’m thankful that our two are alive and not going to be paralyzed and they are on the mend. I know with today’s technology, they will come out of it soon. I know the medical staff is taking real good care of them," Joan said.
A Gofundme page has been set up to help the family with medical bills and the cost of repairs to their truck; click here if you would like to donate.