Disaster struck Cal Poly students on way to super bloom: ‘It is a miracle we survived’

Cal Poly students Erica Kemp, Mariana Silverman and Keilani Waxdeck prepared for a Saturday drive out to the Carrizo Plain super bloom much like everyone else on April 6, not knowing tragedy would bring their plan to an abrupt halt.

Once the dramatic display of wildflowers sprung up in eastern San Luis Obispo County, Kemp said the trio of friends decided to get dressed up in “beautiful tops, long skirts and pants” and go take photos among the stunning views. The trio of friends even stopped at a grocery store to pick up food for an anticipated picnic.

“We looked like little fairies ready to go dance in the sun,” Kemp, 20, told The Tribune slightly more than two weeks later.

They didn’t make it to their photo shoot.

At about 12:30 p.m., Kemp was driving the trio east on Highway 166 when another car, driven westbound by Bakersfield resident Brian Scott Adams, 29, crossed the center line over the highway and slammed into them.

Adams and his passenger, Ashley Nicole Castillo, 29, were declared dead at the scene.

Kemp sustained minor injuries in the crash — heavy bruising and a deep cut on her ankle that required stitches, as well as some localized pain. Silverman, 21, and Waxdeck, 20, however, were seriously injured and immediately transported to different hospitals for treatment.

As of Thursday, Waxdeck is still in a medically induced coma.

Now the community is rallying behind Silverman and Waxdeck, raising funds to help pay their medical expenses. To date, two separate GoFundMe accounts for the women have raised more than $75,000.

“Besides this being a terrible nightmare, I have gathered many positive thoughts from this tragedy,” Kemp wrote in an email to The Tribune on April 18. “The community and support I have been surrounded by has been absolutely amazing. ... It feels amazing to know that people care.”

Fast friends

Kemp said she met Waxdeck their freshman year at Cal Poly, because they were both in the graphic design program.

They immediately hit it off because Waxdeck’s “philosophical, intelligent and graceful” personality helped mellow Kemp’s tendency toward stress, she said. In their sophomore year they became roommates.

Erica Kemp, left, and Keilani Waxdeck, both graphic design students, have been friends since their first year at Cal Poly. Both were injured in a fatal car crash on Highway 166 on April 6, 2019. Waxdeck is still in a medically induced coma. Courtesy of Erica Kemp

“When I first met her, I thought we were soul mates,” Kemp said.

Nicole Sanchez, a family friend of Waxdeck, described her as “just fantastic.”

“She is athletic and smart and fun and is a truly nice girl,” Sanchez told The Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday. “Just a joy to be around.”

Silverman, a hostess at Novo in downtown San Luis Obispo, was a newer addition to their friend group, Kemp said, because she only switched from studio art to the graphic design program this school year.

“Mariana is a ball of sunshine,” Kemp wrote. “She is so happy and energetic all the time. Her laugh is contagious, you can’t miss it.”

“Her happiness is shared with so many people, and so many people love her, including myself,” Kemp added.

A surreal experience

The day of the crash, Kemp said she, Waxdeck and Silverman were planning to go out to the super bloom with three of their other friends.

Those friends drove out in a separate car, and because of a miscommunication, ended up driving north out of San Luis Obispo toward the flowers while Kemp’s car fatefully drove south, taking Highway 166.

“Our friends after us never knew that we had the accident, since they didn’t go the same way as us,” Kemp said. “Since they didn’t have service at Carrizo Plain, they didn’t know we got in our accident until they got home, hours after.”

166 crash.JPG
The remnants of the head-on collision on Highway 166 on April 6 that killed two people. Santa Barbara County Fire Department

By that time, both Silverman and Waxdeck were already in critical condition.

Immediately after the collision, Kemp said she remembered getting out of the car. Witnesses rushed to help her and call 911.

Kemp remembered how strange it was for such a happy day to suddenly shift to tragedy.

“It felt so surreal,” she said. “We were in these beautiful hills, bright blue sky, sun beating down on us stinging my open wounds, and blood dripping down my leg under my skirt.”

Kemp said after a few minutes, some of the responders to the crash told her that Waxdeck and Silverman were still breathing, though the other car’s passengers were dead.

Silverman and Kemp shared an ambulance to Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria. Silverman needed a stretcher, but Kemp didn’t, she recalled.

“My last words to her was that I was so happy that she’s OK and that I love her,” Kemp said. “She responded, ‘Am I OK?’ The crash happened so fast that Mariana didn’t even really understand what had happened.”

Waxdeck, meanwhile, was rushed via helicopter to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

“I was so scared for Keilani — I couldn’t imagine losing her,” Kemp said. “I felt that it would ruin me forever if she didn’t make it.”

In recovery

Silverman suffered a punctured lung, fractured hip, sprained left arm and a fractured right arm, as well as missing teeth, according to Kemp and the GoFundMe campaign. Waxdeck’s injuries included a traumatic brain injury, broken ribs and pelvis, abdominal injuries and a broken ankle and foot.

Mariana Silverman, left, and Erica Kemp, right, are both graphic design students at Cal Poly. Silverman was seriously injured in a fatal car crash on Highway 166 on April 6, 2019. Courtesy Erica Kemp

Silverman had correctional surgery on her right wrist, and it will take six weeks until she can write again, Kemp said. It will also take her several months until she can walk on her own.

Kemp said Silverman is now at home with her family in Redwood City doing physical therapy and recovering.

Waxdeck will be in a medically induced coma for four months while doctors allow her body to heal and perform necessary surgeries to repair some of her broken bones, Kemp said.

The community has since rallied to support the women through their recovery.

Sanchez, who started the GoFundMe campaign for Waxdeck on April 11, said she got the idea soon after hearing about the crash.

“The fundraising in this kind of situation is a great thing, but I figured for every person who donates, probably 10 to 20 people have heard about this,” Sanchez said. “Even if they don’t donate, they send a prayer or a positive thought toward Keilani. I believe in the power of that.”

Sanchez said she first got approval for the campaign from Waxdeck’s parents, who have uprooted their lives to stay in Santa Barbara with their daughter for the near future. They have also started a rotation of family members to stay with Waxdeck every hour of the day.

As of Thursday, Waxdeck’s GoFundMe campaign has raised $67,500 of its $100,000 goal.

“The support has just been amazing,” she said. “They’re just overwhelmed with the love, especially so far from home.”

In the aftermath of the crash, Kemp said she’s struggled with a range of emotions.

“The day after the crash was the hardest,” she said. “I felt so bad for the pain that Mariana was in, and I kept thinking, ‘How am I so OK?’”

Kemp started the fundraising campaign for Silverman’s medical expenses on April 13. As of Thursday, that campaign has raised $8,340.

Though she hasn’t seen either of her friends since the crash, Kemp said she feels the three of them are tied together now by the events of April 6.

“We have this tragedy that bonds the three of us forever,” she said. “I feel that that is simply a miracle bigger than all of us. It is a miracle we survived and I am so thankful.”

To donate

To donate to Waxdeck’s medical expenses, visit www.gofundme.com/help-keilani-triumph-over-tragedy.

To donate to Silverman’s medical expenses, visit www.gofundme.com/fundraiser-to-support-our-lovely-mariana.

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