When Karla Whelchel's sport utility vehicle flipped over last year on Interstate 10, she searched for life among her family inside the crushed vehicle.
When Whelchel searched for support after her husband, 12-year-old daughter and a family friend died in the Aug. 6 accident, she found limited services from some law enforcement agencies.
In the midst of her grief, the Gilbert woman has formed Safe Harbor Support, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help people who have lost a loved one in an vehicle crash.
"It's definitely my way of healing," Whelchel said. She started the group with her 15-year-old daughter, Bridget, who was also in the rollover.
"I think there's a huge need. You hear about it almost every other day, a car accident and someone dying," Karla Whelchel said. Since 2001, more than 1,000 people have died in vehicle crashes each year in Arizona. Nearly twice that number — 1,700 people — survive those crashes, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Chaplains or victim services professionals often will visit the scene of a fatal crash or a home to notify next of kin. But long-term support services for grieving survivors are limited, law enforcement authorities said.
"Once they leave the scene, officers remain in touch, but they're not counselors by any means," said officer Frank Valenzuela, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety. "Once the report is completed and filed, the family is pretty much on their own to get assistance."
Victims of automobile crashes that involve alcohol can turn to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. When an accident involves a crime, police victim services are often called. But when a crash is simply an accident — like the rollover suffered by the Whelchel family — family, friends and colleagues may be their only help through rough times.
"A lot of these people don't get direction," Valenzuela said. "It's a sad thing."
Whelchel wants to change that by providing counseling, funeral arrangement assistance and other resources to loved ones after fatal automobile crashes that do not involve driving under the influence. Safe Harbor can help people apply for Social Security, get through probate and determine credit obligations of the deceased. Victims can receive crisis intervention immediately after a crash, as well as ongoing support. Bridget, who lost her father, sister and best friend Tawnee Hogan in the crash, plans to help grieving teens.
Without the support of her family, neighbors and co-workers, Whelchel said she and Bridget would have been alone to cope with a multiple loss that brings anxiety and tears every day. They both suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and sought help from counselors. Therapy helped Whelchel drive a vehicle again without fear.
Last weekend, the headstone for Brent and Lindsey Whelchel was placed.
"You know it's real, but you still want to believe they're coming home," she said. "I will always have good days and bad days."
Whelchel has assembled a group of volunteers and a part-time counselor for Safe Harbor, which she hopes will begin offering services this fall. Law enforcement agencies have been contacted about referring people to Safe Harbor, and the organization's first fund-raiser is planned for 6 to 10 p.m. Aug. 6 at the J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix. The event will include dinner and a silent auction.
"It's something that gets me up in the morning," Whelchel said of Safe Harbor from her Gilbert home, where photos of Brent and Lindsey hang on the walls. "It's our way of honoring their lives."