Chasing Hope

Jacqui wanted to see her old boyfriend.

She had called Marcos after the accident. She still had hopes.

"I wanted him to love me for the way I am," she said. "I loved him, or I still love him, I don't know."

Marcos came over for Jacqui's 22nd birthday party on Dec. 20. Yeli had planned a happy-face theme party. They put candles on a smiling birthday cake and hung yellow balloons. Jacqui's close friends — including Yeli, Marvin and Sharon — all wore yellow shirts. For one night, they would all be the same.

When Marcos first saw her, he remembers almost fainting. He took a deep breath and pictured her old face.

Jacqui wanted to talk, but there were too many people in the room. Everyone knew the history, and Jacqui could feel them watching.

Before leaving, Marcos came over.

"He told me that he admired me a lot for the strength I had," Jacqui said.

Afterward, she learned that Marcos had cried in the kitchen. It hurt to hear.

"I don't want him to have pity for me," Jacqui told a friend.

The whole trip home was tinged with melancholy. When everyone sang "Happy Birthday," Jacqui and Amadeo cried. Later, Jacqui's friends saw Amadeo sitting alone on the balcony.

Jacqui wanted to stay in Venezuela, but she despaired at seeing her friends do all the things she no longer could.

Everyone's going to have careers, then marry and have families, Jacqui told a college friend one night. My life is ruined.

"You have to keep fighting," her friend said, "and you'll get what you want, the same as us."

A Second Chance

Much about Jacqui seemed the same. She talked nonstop and made jokes, even if some saw her humor as a shield. She remained the center of attention.

But now her friends saw in her a new maturity and perspective.

"She's learned how to live with what she has, to live as she is. And she does it," Marvin said. "She doesn't have hands, but she has this piece of a finger . . . and she says, 'Life gave me this.' "

One night, Marvin brought over a statue of the Rosa Mística, a Virgin Mary saint popular in Venezuela who was said to have first appeared in Italy in 1947.

Jacqui asked everyone present — friends, cousins, uncles, aunts — to gather at a round table in the living room. They placed the statue in the center, lit candles and began praying a rosary. Her friends and relatives took turns offering a prayer for Jacqui. No one knew exactly what to say. Some thanked God for bringing them all together and for saving Jacqui. When Jacqui's turn came, the room fell silent.

"Rosa Mística," she began. She thanked God for allowing her to come home and find everyone well. She prayed for burn victims, for abandoned children and for other people suffering. She asked for strength for her and her family.

And she thanked God for the second chance.

I won't waste this, she said.

Travis County Courthouse, June 2001

Reggie Stephey entered the silent room and looked at each of the faces gathered around the conference table. Mauricio Guerrero and Johan Daal, the father and boyfriend of Laura Guerrero. Jacqui and Amadeo.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Reggie's trial was in its second week. Jacqui and Amadeo, who had returned from Venezuela five months before, had driven to Austin so Jacqui could testify. Reggie had wept when Jacqui took the witness stand — it was the first time he had seen her. Then, on his 20th birthday, the jury found him guilty of two counts of intoxication manslaughter for Laura's and Natalia's deaths. He faced up to 40 years in prison.

Reggie had taken the witness stand to ask the jury for probation — he said he wanted to educate teen-agers about drunken driving and "give them something to think about." Then he apologized to the victims and offered to meet with them in person.

Jacqui had long been curious about Reggie — what he looked like, what kind of person he was. When she walked from the witness stand back to her seat, she couldn't help herself. She paused and peeked.

"Oh, he's handsome," she thought.

She found herself feeling sorry for Reggie, worrying that he wouldn't be able to attend college. Still, she felt he should be held responsible for the lives he destroyed.

"I wish there was something between guilt and innocence," she said afterward.

As jurors weighed Reggie's punishment, Jacqui and the others agreed to meet him in a conference room.


Jacqui spoke at the end of the meeting. She told Reggie how her life had changed.

"I don't hate you," she remembers saying, "but you need to understand that you committed a grave mistake."

The room was silent.

"I forgive you," she said.

Reggie, Jacqui remembers, said he wished he could give her back the past. I admire you, Reggie said. I'll do anything I can to help you — I'm at your service.

Jacqui looked at him.

"Well," she answered, "I do need a housekeeper."

As they finished talking, the jury reached a verdict on Reggie's sentence. Johan shook Reggie's hand. Amadeo and Mauricio embraced him, and Reggie gave Mauricio the crucifix he had rubbed throughout the trial.

Reggie, Jacqui remembers, hugged her gently.

"I think he thought probably I would break."

The News Conference

Reporters surrounded Jacqui as she tried to absorb her feelings.

The jury had sentenced Reggie to seven years in prison and fined him $10,000 for each death. The judge ran the sentences together, so Reggie would be eligible for parole in four years.

He still faced assault charges for the wounds he caused to the three survivors. Johanna's injuries included dislocated bones, a fractured nose and two lost teeth. Johan's wounds included torn tendons in his knee and hand.

"Even if it means sitting here in front of a camera with no ears, no nose, no eyebrows, no hair, I'll do this a thousand times if it will help someone make a wise decision," Jacqui told reporters. "I also think some of us who are strong have to go through things that help us make choices for those who are weaker.

Angels of Salvation

Before returning to Galveston, Jacqui arranged a meeting at her hotel with the paramedics and firefighters who responded to the accident. She had missed their testimony and wanted to thank them and find out what they had seen.

Bryan Fitzpatrick, who discovered Jacqui was alive, and John McIntosh, who had stayed by the car window, walked uneasily into the hotel restaurant.

The accident had disturbed them deeply. The day after the fire, Fitzpatrick had frozen while stowing away his fire protection coat. Why didn't I throw it over her? he thought. Why didn't I spit on the fire?

Many nights, Fitzpatrick's wife listened to him moan during nightmares in which he relived the accident like a movie playing over and over.

McIntosh had dreams, too. In one, the former Army medic stared down at a pry bar in his hands. He kept calling the burn unit, asking the nurses about Jacqui. Finally, he broke his own unwritten rule and and drove to see her in Galveston.

He wasn't sure why, but he felt compelled to go.

"Sometimes you need a refresher course in your life," McIntosh said. "She's the strongest person I've ever met."

In the hotel, Jacqui came bopping down the hall. Both men were amazed at her progress.

Jacqui, who nicknamed McIntosh "Kojak" because of his shaved head, began asking questions.

How much was I already burned when you first saw me? she asked. No, McIntosh corrected her, you weren't on fire when we arrived.

Jacqui stopped.

My God, she thought, why didn't this man pull me out?

She wanted to throttle the paramedic. She breathed deeply and kept asking questions: Why didn't you break the seat? Why didn't you pull me from the car?

I couldn't move the door, McIntosh explained. We did everything we could.

Jacqui choked back her anger.

You can't do anything, Jacqueline, she told herself. And if you're here, it's because of them.

"And I thanked them, and we made jokes," she said.

They took pictures and hugged goodbye. "My angels of salvation," Jacqui called the gathered rescue workers. Before leaving, she rubbed McIntosh's bald head.