Unlikely friendship from flames of freeway tragedy
Widow fighting ‘injustice’
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
MISSED: Tom Spiess was killed when an out-of-control truck ploughed into three cars on a freeway.
IN HAPPIER TIMES: Tom and Jan Spiess.