BRUSLY, La. — A New Year’s Eve party with a Christmas tree bonfire was going to be how Maggie Dunn and Caroline Gill rang in a new year.
“She had just told me that 2023 was going to be such a big year for her,” Kim Elliott, Caroline’s mom, said.
Caroline, 15, was about to get her braces off, and Maggie, 17, was in the middle of her junior year.
It wasn’t unusual for Maggie and Caroline to be together. They were best friends and both cheered together for Brusly High School.
They spent the day getting ready for their big gettogether, when a quick trip to grab some food turned to tragedy.
Wrong place, wrong time
Kim Elliot and her husband Jason were running errands on December 31. They were on their way to drop off their younger children at their grandparent’s home before heading into Baton Rouge.
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“There were cars all over the place,” Jason Elliot, Caroline’s stepfather, said.
Traffic was heavy and building on La. 1 when they saw a police chase zoom by them.
“We see this white car come by, flying 100mph, swerving all over the road,” Jason said. “(It was) going all over the median. It was like they were driving in a video game. “
“I remember saying this is why it’s so hard to let your kids be on the road,” Kim said. “Because all these cars were going everywhere, they were speeding through and were in the median. So much so that even after they passed, they were all just sitting there. Nobody was getting back on the road because there were that many cars going through, and they were going that fast.”
What they didn’t know was Maggie and Caroline were also on La. 1. They were in the direct path of that very police chase.
“I pulled up Life 360, (and it said) that’s where Caroline is,” Kim recalled. “But, I said maybe they’re in the area and they’re pulled over to the side.”
Frantic, they started calling her.
“When she didn’t answer the phone, I knew she was involved in it somehow,” said Jason.
“I just couldn’t get myself to leave her”
Erin Martin was at home getting things ready for the New Year’s Eve party her kids and their friends were planning. She remembers being upstairs when she heard the front door open.
“One of them must have come in, grabbed something off the front table and gone right back out,” Erin Martin recalled.
Ten minutes later, Erin says her life turned upside down. Caroline’s sister Mallory had called her to tell her about the police chase and that Caroline and Maggie were in an accident.
“She said, ‘They hit Maggie’s Car,” Erin recalled.
She immediately told her husband Kenny Wayne Martin what was going on, and they started heading to the scene. It was only a few minutes from their home.
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“As soon as we pulled up and saw the scale of cop cars, I knew it was huge,” Erin said. “When (Kenny) saw the car, he didn’t think anyone could have (survived).”
Much of that moment is a blur for Erin.
“My first thought was that they were both gone,” Erin said.
But what Erin would soon learn is that her son Liam, who was in the backseat of the car, survived. He was in bad shape, with what they thought was a punctured lung and a broken femur.
“The ambulance driver actually called me and told me that he was stable,” Erin recalls. “She managed to get him to call me … and he was talking to me. (The driver) assured me he was stable.”
Erin was paralyzed with emotion in that moment. She knew Liam was injured, but was relieved to hear him on the phone and know he was alive. But she also knew her daughter wasn’t as lucky.
“Even at the time though, we knew Maggie was gone, I just couldn’t get myself to leave her,” Erin said through tears. “I just didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t get myself to leave the scene.”
“I wanted to believe it was anything other than that”
Kim and Jason Elliott called Caroline’s father Jason Gill to tell them about the accident. He made it to the scene minutes later.
“Just by looking at things, if she was in the passenger seat, I knew there was no way. I mean the door went all the way through the center console of the car. A strange feeling came over me, and I just knew she didn’t make it.” Jason Gill said, his voice shaking from recalling that moment.
But, in the chaos of the scene, Caroline’s family was told that she was alive and that she was talking and even moved the hair out of her face.
“I think they were just trying to keep us away from the car,” Kim said. “But in my mind, I just didn’t really know. I guess when you’re in that situation, I wanted to believe it was anything other than that.”
The heartache of the day Caroline died still weighs on her family.
She was a 15 year old who was looking forward to getting her braces off just a few weeks after Christmas.
“It still doesn’t feel real to me,” Caroline’s stepdad Jason Elliott said.
“To me, there’s a big empty spot,” Caroline’s dad Jason Gill said. “It’s like living in a nightmare. Nothing can ever bring her back, and it’s never going to go away.”
He’s hanging on to the simple memories of Caroline — like Saturday morning trips to get donuts and coffee.
“It’s not the same anymore,” Gill said. “You don’t her laughing at the silly things in life or playing with her (younger siblings). She was always poking fun at them, and the brotherly-sisterly bond they all had was unique.”
Caroline’s late night snacking is something Jason Elliott remembers most.
“She was so small, but I think she consumed 4,000 calories a day,” Jason Elliott said joking. “Usually in the middle of the night after we had gone to bed, she’d get something out and eat it in the pantry. I wake up now thinking I can still hear her eating in the pantry.”
The emotional rollercoaster has taken a toll on the whole family, especially Caroline’s older sister and her mom.
“You think of your kids, and everything makes you happy,” Kim Elliott said through tears. “When you look at pictures and videos and all those things, but it is so hard to look at her picture and her video (now) because that’s gone. It’s hard to have that reality that she doesn’t come back. I think originally when people asked if were were okay, I could say right now in this minute I’m okay. But it’s truly minute by minute thing.”
“I call it the rollercoaster,” Jason Gill said. “You may go two hours and everything is fine. But when I walk by something, something like a hairclip (and I remember her).”
“Nothing is ever going to be the same,” Kim Elliot said with tears in her eyes. “Our life will never be the same, our kids’ lives will never be there same. I don’t know how you live a life without one of your children.
“She wasn’t doing anything wrong. None of them were doing anything wrong. They were being kids, they were excited about having a New Year’s get together. And in that moment, I can just hope that she was never scared, that she never saw it and she was never scared.”
Her family is now fighting for changes when it comes to police chases. They believe what happened was a failure from the top down.
“I don’t know the pursuit laws, but I know there are some there, and I know it wasn’t followed,” Jason Gill said. “Why shouldn’t those people be held accountable for not following those regulations?”
“She was just amazing, just everything,” Maggie’s mom Erin Martin recalls.
For Maggie’s family, they were getting ready to celebrate her junior year, and all of the milestones that come with being in high school.
Her death has been especially hard on her mom because their house was the hangout house.
“I tell them all, you can’t just leave me, y’all are my connection,” she said. “It’s hard enough when she’s your baby and will be leaving in two years…it’s like that empty nest thing but times five and way too soon.”
Maggie being with her best friend in her final moments does give her family some hope.
“It gives you a little peace that they were together, that she wasn’t by herself,” Erin said.
Erin and Kenny Wayne say they’ve been blown away by the outpouring of support from the community. They continue to be surprised by the lives Maggie touched. They say they’ve been approached by so many people, people they didn’t even know knew their daughter.
“When you’re a mom, and you have a daughter, you secretly hope they’ll grow up to be like you. And you never think you’re going to have daughter, and she’s going to grow up, and you’re going to want to be like her. Maggie is that kid.”
“He’s a fighter”
As bad as the crash was, there was a sliver of good news. Liam survived. But he was in bad shape.
“They didn’t expect him to make it that night,” Erin said. “But, he’s a fighter.”
With Erin still on the scene in Brusly, Liam’s dad and some other family members met him at the hospital. Liam had congestive heart failure, pneumonia, contusions on his lungs and that broken femur. He was intubated for 12 days.
But one of the hardest things for Liam’s family was trying to stay positive and upbeat for him, while grieving. Liam’s health was so fragile, that they weren’t ready to tell him about the accident and about Maggie and Caroline.
“That was so difficult,” Erin said. “But I don’t know if deep down he didn’t know.”
After nearly two weeks of being sedated, Liam had concocted stories about being in a NASCAR, shooting somebody and had stories about his father following him around.
“The more I put it all together, I was like, there was a chase, the guy that did pull him out of the car (did look like his dad) and I’ve heard multiple people say that when you break your femur…it sounds like a gunshot,” Erin said.
“He had some stories, he had everybody laughing,” Kenny said.
After being sedated for so long, his body was strong enough for surgery. His first surgery on January 12 was for his wrist and leg. And while he was recovering, his family was saying goodbye to Maggie. Her funeral was on January 13.
It was three more days until the family was able to tell Liam about the accident and about Maggie and Caroline.
“To see his face, he finally got color back and it was white again,” Kenny said.
Erin was the one to tell Liam about everything. With the help of doctors and nurses at Our Lady of the Lake, she was able to muster up the strength to tell Liam exactly what happened.
Erin admits that it took everything she had to be strong in that moment for her son.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Erin said. “I walked out and I was like, I’m done being strong, I’m falling apart now.”
“We have funerals, we have wakes, we have each other to grieve, and he was just stuck in a hospital room. I know there’s probably more to this process that he needs. But this whole blanket of love around him is kind of helping him too.”
Road to recovery
With his fighting spirit, Liam was motivated to get home. He was able to take a few steps with help in ICU after surgery. And once he made it out of ICU, he began walking more and more every day.
“The first day he was telling us, ‘I’m getting out of here’,” Kenny said. “He walked 10-15 steps, good steps with the walker. He was worn out. And the next day he took off down the hall towards the window. Now he’s doing great, they brag about how hard he tries.
His family says Liam is fighting from more physical therapy. He’s wanting to get back to life as a teen. He’s even working hard to be able to drive .
“Everyday he’s like, ‘I’m going to be driving as soon as possible,” Erin said. “I’m like no, you’re going to be in bubble wrap! You’re never leaving here.”
Though joking, Erin is helping her son readjust to life at home with his friends and his girlfriend.
Welcome home, Liam
After nearly a month in the hospital with stents in ICU and rehab, Liam was finally able to go home on January 28.
It was a welcome home filled with an outpouring of love from his teammates from the Brusly High School baseball team, the tightknit community and family.
A group of friends arrived at his parents home around 9:30 a.m. to start making jambalaya to welcome not only Dunn back home, but to take the weight off the family of a meal for everyone coming to the house.
But Dunn’s meal was a patty melt with no onions and a chocolate milkshake from Whataburger — his favorite.
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