Tragedy strikes man’s family twice

August 7, 2005
Jim Arnold is well-acquainted with the whirring of the machines keeping Erica Mayo alive. Just a few months ago, he was the one unconscious in a hospital bed on the brink of death, hooked up to the same machines.
It was Mayo, the mother of his children, praying by the bedside. Now, Arnold said, “It’s my turn to take care of her.” The Calhan family has been hit twice by calamity within just three months. In April, Arnold was nearly killed in an explosion while working on a race car at his home. On July 29, Mayo, their infant twins, his son, and two stepdaughters were on Interstate 25 when their pickup was struck head-on by another pickup that blew a tire and swerved across the median. The driver of the pickup, Kenneth D. Ellis, died on impact. He had a suspended driver’s license, according to the Colorado State Patrol, and no car insur- ance. Arnold’s stepdaughters, ages 7 and 10, spent last week in hospitals in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, and Mayo, 32, is listed in critical condition at Denver Health Medical Center. None of them have health insurance. It might seem like a horrible run of bad luck, but Arnold can’t believe his good fortune. “My dad asked me, ‘When are you going to get some good luck?’” said the 36-year-old truck driver. “My answer was, ‘I have good luck. My wife is still alive. My kids are still alive.’ “I feel lucky they’re still here.” Arnold suffered second- and third-degree burns on a third of his body April 20. His amateur race car backfired, igniting methanol he was pouring. Methanol burns with invisible flames, which shot up into the can before he knew it. “The can didn’t explode, but it kind of turned into a torch,” he said. “I didn’t know it was on fire until I smelled the hair burning on my face.” Mayo found him rolling in the dirt, smoke rising from invisible flames licking his torso, arms, hands, legs and face. She shoveled dirt onto him and got him into a cold shower, then drove him more than 10 miles to the nearest fire station. A helicopter took him to the burn unit at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, where he lingered unconscious for three weeks. Pneumonia almost killed him. During his recovery, when he had begun to feel stronger, Mayo and the other children drove to Pueblo to pick up Arnold’s son, 11-year-old Nicholas, who lives there with his mother. Any thoughts Arnold had about racing ended that day, when he found out his family had been in a crash on the interstate. On his way to the hospital in Pueblo, he stopped at the scene, two miles south of the El Paso County line, and was shocked by the sight of the family’s twisted pickup. “I was just so scared. My whole family was in there. Everybody I spend every day with was in there,” he said. “All the people I’m responsible for were in there and I wasn’t there.” Still, it could have been a lot worse. Though Mayo had fractures to her pelvis, legs, arms, ankles, hips and kneecaps, the 8-month-old twins were fine, as was his 11-yearold son. Seven-year-old Shawnie had some internal injuries and 10-year-old Jodi had a large gash and a broken bone around her eye socket. Arnold has been dividing his time among three hospitals, and trying to care for the twins at the same time. He still moves unsteadily and bears severe scars, but he has been able to work a day or two a week recently. Court records show Ellis, the driver of the other pickup, had been arrested four times since 1989 for driving on a suspended license and ticketed five times for driving without insurance. The State Patrol said alcohol or drugs were not involved in the crash. It angers Arnold to think the crash wasn’t Mayo’s fault, that she hasn’t opened her eyes since. He spends every minute he can by her side. There are other things he could be worrying about, like how he’ll ever pay the astronomical medical bills the family is accumulating, on top of the large amount left over from his own hospital stay. But that’s a worry for later. Seeing Mayo through the days ahead — she’s fighting against infection and her condition is touch-and-go — is what matters now. “She’s just the greatest person I’ve ever known, the nicest, kindest-hearted person you’ll ever meet,” he said. “She didn’t do anything her whole life to deserve this.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 476-1605 or TO HELP A fund set up for the family of Jim Arnold after he was severely burned in April is still open, and the family hopes people will donate money to help defray medical expenses from the Interstate 25 crash. Donations can be sent to the Jim Arnold Benefit Account, Pikes Peak National Bank, 2401 W. Colorado Ave., Colorado Springs 80904.
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