‘We did our best.’ Chugiak teens share story of Glenn Highway heartbreak
The last person Sarah Rodden saw was the young man who tried to save her life.
“She looked at me right in the eyes,” said Matt Davis, 17, three days after his only meeting with the 42-year-old woman from Wasilla.
As calamity enveloped them, Davis and his best friend Jared Heaston, 18, calmly worked to help Rodden after she was struck by a vehicle during a Tuesday pile-up on the ice-covered Glenn Highway. Heaston held Rodden’s head and checked for a pulse while Davis performed CPR on Rodden as she lay in the snow-covered highway median.
Their efforts were in vain.
“I physically lost her in my hands,” Davis said.
Davis and Heaston shared their story Friday during a midday conversation at an Eagle River coffee shop. At times fighting back tears, the high school seniors said they did everything they could to save a stranger from dying.
Days after the crash, both said they still struggle with the reality of what happened.
“The second day was all right, but the third day, yesterday, that was the toughest day,” Heaston said.
Both have had trouble sleeping; Heaston said he’s had strange dreams where cars crash over and over again.
“It just came in waves for us,” he said. “We’d be happy and then we’d space out and get all emotional again … even right now it’s emotional just talking about it.”
“They just kept coming.”
Tuesday started out as “just a normal day,” Heaston said. He and another friend accompanied Davis to Wasilla, where Davis purchased a new Canon 6D camera. The previous day’s snowfall had covered the Glenn in ice, but traffic was moving along at close to normal speeds as Davis’s red Chevy Silverado approached the top of the rise at the South Birchwood overpass.
As they crested the hill, all Heaston could see from the back seat were brake lights and vehicles sliding on the ice.
The Chevy was the first vehicle into the ditch, but far from the last. Davis managed to avoid hitting anyone and drove into the steep-sided median and out of harm’s way. But he could see things were rapidly turning to chaos behind him as more cars crested the hill.
“They just kept coming,” he said. “You can’t do anything on the ice.”
Davis and Heaston got out to check on the occupants of a vehicle that had crashed behind them. Further down the median, a woman driving a 2001 Dodge van had collided with a Toyota Rav-4. Police said the driver of the van — Rodden — got out of her vehicle and was trying to get away from the pile-up when a 2015 Mazda slid into the ditch and struck her.
“We saw her fly six feet,” Davis said.
Both teens have First Aid training — Heaston is a lifeguard, and Davis took CPR as a freshman at Chugiak High — and they figured it was their duty to help.
“We didn’t even think about it,” Davis said.
At one point, a semi truck hauling a load of cars started sliding in their direction. Friends told them to run.
“I’m like, ‘I can’t. We’ve got to keep going,’” Davis recalled.
The truck stopped just short.
Heaston said he briefly felt a pulse. Davis said Rodden opened her eyes. They thought they might have saved her.
“Every time I shut my eyes I see her face in my head,” Davis said.
“We did our best.”
Davis has spoken to a counselor about the incident; Heaston has talked to his parents. Their classmates and teachers at Chugiak High have been supportive, both said, and principal Megan Hatswell even offered Davis her personal cell number.
“She said, ‘If you need anything you can call me,’ ” he said. “That meant a lot.”
Davis and Heaston have been in contact with Rodden’s sister, Heather Enderson, who offered them thanks for trying to help in Sarah’s final moments.
“She was very grateful that we did our best,” Davis said.
Rodden’s family started a Gofundme.com page to help with funeral expenses. According to a post on her sister’s Facebook page, Rodden recently moved back to Alaska after 14 years away and “was so excited to be able to have a White Chirstmas with her baby sister.”
“Honestly it has been such a whirlwind the last couple days, you just can’t put into words what you really need cause you don’t actually know,” Enderson wrote. “…and what you actually want, no one can give you.”
“More to life.”
Heaston said watching Rodden die in his friend’s arms changed him forever.
“If anything it’s probably taught a big lesson that your normal day can turn into something else just like that,” he said. “It taught us life is the most precious thing we have.”
For Davis, the experience has been profound. In the weeks before the accident, he said, he struggled with depression after missing the football season due to grades and getting cut from the hockey team.
“Before all of this I hated life,” he said. “I thought (my life) was a dead end ever since I didn’t make the hockey team and the football team and there was nothing for me to work towards.”
About two weeks ago, Davis’s mom sent him an inspirational quote.
“It’s something about a bow and arrow, how when life’s dragging you backwards it’s about to spring forward,” he said.
Davis thinks Tuesday’s experience may have awakened the spring in him.
“There’s a lot more to life than people think.”
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.