West Linn coaches honored at Royal Rosarian ceremony
After nearly three months, John VanAcker finally got the call he'd been waiting for.
VanAcker and Brooke Cates, both coaches for the West Linn High School girls basketball team, were honored by the school earlier this year for helping save a mother and her two children from a car wreck in December 2021. But it wasn't until recently that they learned what happened to the woman, who was seriously injured. The lack of clarity and closure weighed heavily on both coaches.
When VanAcker told his wife that the woman had survived, she responded: "You're back."
"I think that says a lot right there," VanAcker said. "Those close to you recognize when you try to hide things, even if you don't know you are."
On April 20, VanAcker and Cates were honored at the Royal Rosarians' Newsmaker of the Year award ceremony, where local media outlets nominated and honored people who had "performed exceptional acts of heroism or benevolent service" for their community. Cates and VanAcker were nominated by Pamplin Media Group for their heroism in December.
During the banquet, the coaches' harrowing story was retold to the audience, which struck something in both of them.
"Hearing the story told again … it was the first time I was brought right back to that moment," Cates said. "I was right there again on the freeway with this burning car and this mom."
On Dec. 19, 2021, the West Linn High School basketball team was in Arizona competing in a Nike Tournament of Champions game. While they were driving back from dinner one night, a car traveling in front of them was hit by another and spun out of control. It hit a side embankment before stalling in front of the team's vans.
Cates and VanAcker immediately jumped from their vehicles to help.
Inside the damaged car they found a mother and her two children. The mom had been knocked unconscious. After helping the children from the car, and placing them in the care of another bystander, they noticed the car was smoking and not long after was fully engulfed in flames.
Immediately, VanAcker went into the burning car and rescued the woman who was still unconscious and strapped into the driver's seat. After VanAcker retrieved the woman, Cates realized the mother wasn't breathing and performed CPR.
Just as Cates revived the woman, first responders arrived on the scene and took over. The coaches watched the ambulance drive away, unaware of what state the mother was in.
"We knew that she was breathing, but we didn't know the extent of her injuries," VanAcker said.
For the next few days as the team continued competing in Arizona, the coaches spent their free time calling hospitals in the area to gather information about the woman. But because of privacy laws, they were kept in the dark.
"It weighed heavy on both of us, leaving Arizona and not knowing what happened to her … if she was alive," Cates said.
On the evening of Dec. 22, the basketball team returned to Oregon. The next day, VanAcker visited the West Linn Police Department and asked if they could find any information on the accident. Within two hours, they got a call back saying it was an ongoing investigation and no more information could be shared. It was suggested that they keep watching the Arizona, news stations and chase down information that way.
On Dec. 26, VanAcker reached out to ABC 15 news anchor Zack Crenshaw, who had covered the accident. He didn't hear back until early March, but Crenshaw said he would find out more information. On March 15, he emailed them saying he was "getting close."
A day later, the coaches were told that the woman had lived and they were given her name.
Cates and VanAcker haven't reached out to the woman yet, as they are trying to figure out the best approach.
"I just wanted to hear her voice,"VanAcker said. "When I pulled her out of the car, we just thought she was unconscious, and then we put her on the ground and found no pulse … and Brooke got her breathing again, but she was never responsive and we didn't know the extent of her injuries."
Now, the pair are working to find closure.
For Cates, the healing is not only ongoing but maybe just started. She said after hearing her story being told at the Royal Rosarians banquet, it was a starting point for her healing journey.
"The first time that we ever talked about it (publicly) was at the banquet. For whatever reason, I didn't go back to that moment and stashed it away until then," Cates said. "I think that was kind of the beginning of my healing."
VanAcker said the pair had tried to keep the incident as "invisible" as they could. Now, he said finding closure is an "ongoing challenge" not only in terms of healing but also not letting the emotional trauma "dominate" him.
"But we're not heroes. We're just a couple knuckleheads," he said. "We did what we thought was the best thing to do at that time. The outcome was positive, and that's something to celebrate. I think that Brooke and myself and our (students) have grown a lot because of that moment."
The coaches also have taken this time to connect with their team. Cates said some of the players who witnessed the incident were the first people she told after she heard the woman had survived.
"It weighed heavily on all of us and it really bonded us together in some ways. There will always be a special connection with this team because we went through something like this," Cates said.
Among the many lessons from that moment back in December, the coaches both said it instilled the importance of appreciating each day.
"The event taught us that life is precious … and you just don't know what's going to happen, so live each day," Cates said. "You need to (spend) each day loving your family and your kids. And now, hopefully, this mom will be able to love her kids for many years to come."
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