Un­likely friend­ship from flames of free­way tragedy

Widow fight­ing ‘in­jus­tice’

Big Rigs - - NEWS - Sean Whit­ting­ton

WIDOWED by a truck crash, Jan Spiess never ex­pected to con­front those in­volved.

Yet in the face of tragedy and in the true spirit of com­pas­sion, the lov­ing wife has formed a unique and un­likely bond with the very truck driver charged with killing her hus­band.

In Au­gust 2014, Mrs Spiess’ hus­band of 37 years, Thomas, 56, and a woman, Jacqui Byrne, 41, were killed when an out-of-con­trol truck driven by Darren Hicks ploughed into three cars at high speed at the bot­tom of the South East­ern Free­way in Ade­laide.

Mr Hicks, now 31, has been charged over the deaths, in­clud­ing two charges of caus­ing death by dan­ger­ous driv­ing, with pros­e­cu­tors al­leg­ing his reck­less driv­ing caused the truck’s brakes to fail.

His em­ployer at the time, Tran­spa­cific, now known as Clean­away.

How­ever, in a highly un­usual turn of events, Mrs Spiess strongly sym­pa­thises with the ac­cused – a view she formed just days af­ter the “dis­as­ter”, as she refers to the crash, re­fus­ing to call it an “ac­ci­dent”.

“(Darren) is like a son to me now,” Mrs Spiess ex­plained from her home in Hallett Cove, in Ade­laide’s south­ern sub­urbs.

“I lost my hus­band and my daugh­ters lost their fa­ther in that dis­as­ter, but Darren’s just as much a ca­su­alty of this as we are,” she said.

“It’s a very un­usual re­la­tion­ship, I know.”

A mother of two and grand­mother of eight, Mrs Spiess con­tacted Mr Hicks the same week her hus­band died – and only days af­ter view­ing CCTV vi­sion of the truck’s en­tire jour­ney down the South East­ern Free­way.

Mrs Spiess read a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle on Mr Hicks and how dev­as­tated he felt af­ter the crash, so she de­cided to visit him in hos­pi­tal to tell him in per­son she did not hold him re­spon­si­ble.

Un­for­tu­nately, Mr Hicks was heav­ily med­i­cated af­ter hav­ing his left leg am­pu­tated and was un­able to meet Mrs Spiess, but she met his wife and an

im­me­di­ate friend­ship was struck.

“Darren is the loveli­est of guys,” Mrs Spiess said. “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s been through enough. He lost his leg – that’s a life-chang­ing thing.”

Mrs Spiess said Mr Hicks had as much right to grieve as any­one else in­volved.

“(Know­ing he killed two peo­ple) is also a heavy bur­den to carry. It’s a hor­ri­ble me­mory.

“I’m like a proud mum, so proud of him and his at­ti­tude – that he hasn’t given up de­spite all he’s been through, and con­tin­ues to go through.”

Now an un­likely ad­vo­cate, Mrs Spiess ral­lies against false por­tray­als of Darren.

“He has been por­trayed as a dan­ger­ous men­ace on the road, reck­less, a dan­ger to ev­ery­one on the road, but he wasn’t.

“I have seen the whole film footage from the top of the free­way to the bot­tom. He was hang­ing on for dear life in a truck with no brakes – no ex­haust brakes, no foot brakes, no hand­brake – noth­ing.

“I know what hap­pened and I know this guy – no drugs, no al­co­hol. He hasn’t even had a park­ing ticket.

“He’s an elite ath­lete. This is a fo­cused, healthy young man. The only mis­take he made was get­ting into a truck that had no brakes.

“I’ve lost my hus­band, I haven’t lost my mar­bles.”

De­spite all this, Mrs Spiess, who this year would have cel­e­brated her 40th wed­ding an­niver­sary with Thomas, is de­ter­mined to help Mr Hicks.

At his crim­i­nal trial in Oc­to­ber next year, she says she will be stand­ing along­side Mr Hicks “every step of the way”.

“I am go­ing to sup­port him right through to the end – what­ever it takes, what­ever it needs,” Mrs Spiess said.

The “dis­as­ter” con­tin­ues to take a huge toll on the widow, deeply af­fect­ing her health, ex­ac­er­bated by the fact she saw the tragedy un­fold live on tele­vi­sion.

She now suf­fers from stress, de­vel­oped life-threat­en­ing peri­toni­tis, which put her in in­ten­sive care for two weeks, bat­tled breast can­cer alone and is no longer able to work.

To make mat­ters worse, au­thor­i­ties won’t is­sue a death cer­tifi­cate for her hus­band un­til the crim­i­nal mat­ters are com­pleted – some­thing that could take years.

“Our whole fam­ily is in dis­tress. Tom’s par­ents are still alive and they are be­side them­selves,” Mrs Spiess said.

“He did a hell of a job to do what he did on that day. If not for Darren’s driv­ing, I might not have had a hus­band to bury at all,” she said.

“Lots of peo­ple just want this to go away for a num­ber of rea­sons. It is just im­plau­si­ble that the truck driver can be the only one re­spon­si­ble for this dis­as­ter.

“It’s such an in­jus­tice that has made our fam­ily so up­set. For the life of us, we can’t fig­ure it out.

“If he has to go through a court trial, I will be with him every step of the way.”

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❝ I lost my hus­band and my daugh­ters lost their fa­ther in that dis­as­ter, but Darren’s just as much a ca­su­alty of this as we are. — Jan Spiess

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

MISSED: Tom Spiess was killed when an out-of-con­trol truck ploughed into three cars on a free­way.

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

IN HAP­PIER TIMES: Tom and Jan Spiess.

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