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BROWN: 34 years ago, a Christmas Eve crash brought strangers together

On Christmas Eve 1983, blowing and drifting snow caused an 11-car pileup on Illinois Highway 116 just west of Pontiac and sent 22 people into this farmhouse for shelter. Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown was one of them and tells the story of one of his most unforgettable Christmases. | Robert Broerman/For the Sun-Times

My last thought just before impact was that I must have become disoriented in the blinding snow and mistakenly driven into a parking lot.

How else to account for all the immobile cars askew in front of me?

It was only after the crash that I came to realize I was still on the road and that all those other cars had crashed, too.

OPINION

The date was December 24, 1983. Christmas Eve.

Before that afternoon was out, 11 cars would collide on that rural patch of Illinois Highway 116, between Pontiac and Flanagan — a slow-motion, chain-reaction accident that stretched over hours. My red Toyota Corolla and I arrived somewhere in the middle of things.

Many of the other motorists were like me, making the trip from the Chicago area to central Illinois to visit family for the holiday. A woman from Edgebrook, an older couple from Naperville, a young couple from Merrillville, all bumping into one another, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.

Front page of the story in the Pontiac, Ill. newspaper about the weather and crash.

But what made the day so remarkable wasn’t the accident itself but what followed, as the farm family closest to the scene took all the crash victims into their home until help could arrive hours later.

At least 22 people — ages 1 to 60 — piled into the living room of Marvin and Sharon Russell, joining them and their four daughters.

Together we turned the farmhouse into what might best be described as a hospital emergency room holding an impromptu Christmas party.

Seven of the travelers had suffered minor injuries and were later taken by ambulance to a real hospital.

In the meantime, the Russell home was filled with blood and tension, laughter and good cheer, the anxiety of disrupted travel plans and financial loss eased by the simple hospitality of our hosts.

It’s one of my most vivid Christmas memories, but also incomplete, which is why I set out last week to track down the others involved for their insights.

Armed with Illinois State Trooper R.P. McClellan’s accident report and two business cards — one of my own on which I’d jotted the Russells’ names that day and another from the fellow whose car hit mine — I was able to contact about half of them.

They all remember the weather, of course, the sub-zero temperatures and high winds that whipped up the fallen snow from the previous night to create whiteout conditions.

For most of them, though, it was the kindness of strangers that still shines most brightly through the haze of memory 34 years later.

Richard Rambo and his mother, Marilyn Rambo, were among nearly two dozen people welcomed into a farmhouse near Pontiac, Ill., after a multi-car accident during a December 1983 blizzard. | Provided

“Over the years, we’ve thought about that many times,” said Richard Rambo, 59, a now-retired warehouse manager from Darien, who was making the trip that day with his mother, Marilyn, who lives in Bradley.

Rambo said it was the generosity of the farm family he and his mom most recall.

For starters, the Russells fed us, even though my sense of it at the time was that the family didn’t have much.

Sharon Russell served up hot dogs and later broke out her Christmas cookies. They let us use their phone in the days when the cost of long distance calls could be a deterrent. They allowed 22 complete strangers into their bathroom.

Most important, they patiently endured the intrusion while we waited for a rescue that for some took late into the evening.

“They were extremely nice to take in everyone,” agreed Kathy Kelly, 75, who lived in Pontiac at the time. “Very gracious.”

“Good people,” is how Larry Monaghan, then 28, of Merrillville, Ind., now 62 and living in New Jersey, remembers it.

For all these years, I’ve made that same trip, and thought to myself I should stop by that house to say a proper thank you, but never did.

This year would be different, I decided, and I put together a food basket before heading Downstate last weekend.

But for that part of the story, including how Sharon Russell remembers that day, you’ll have to read Monday’s column.