One year ago today, while Marietta teen Lidiane Carmo slept, her life was changed forever on a foggy, smoke-filled Florida highway.
In a massive pileup on I-75, 11 people died and two dozen — including Lidiane — were injured. Two days later as she recovered in the hospital, Lidiane was told the horrific news. Every member of her immediate family was killed in the crash.
Tuesday marks one year since five members of the International Church of the Restoration died as they were returning from weekend religious conference in Orlando. And while the physical wounds have healed, the emotional pain remains for the small congregation and one teenager.
Killed were a pastor and his wife, Jose and Adriana Carmo, along with their 17-year-old daughter, Leticia. The pastor’s brother, Edson Carmo, and Edson Carmo’s girlfriend, Rosa DeSilva, also died. Lidiane was critically injured, but survived the crash.
“We need prayers,” Rosana Alves, a family friend and church member, told The AJC the day after the crash.
In the days that followed the crash, the small congregation saw its own faith tested, but found comfort from the belief that the Carmo family was in a better place. Unknown to Lidiane, her heartbreaking story was one that made national headlines.
Strangers offered to help the teenager, fellow high school students mourned the loss of Leticia, and donations helped the small church return the victims to Brazil after hundreds attended a funeral service in Marietta.
For some, grief turned to anger and questions about whether the stretch of interstate should have been open due to low visibility in the area from brush fires.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the crashes to determine how or if they could have been prevented, and how the state could avoid a future tragedy.
In a report released April 26, the FDLE found no criminal wrongdoing, but said state troopers erred in re-opening a stretch of the interstate clouded with smoke and fog. For church members, the findings coincided with what they already believed: The interstate should not have been open.
The Florida Highway Patrol responded in August with a report of its own, stating that drivers were at fault in the crashes.
“No amount of planning or policy will take the place of driver reaction to low visibility and unpredictable conditions,” the report states.
Several lawsuits are pending, including one involving Lidiane, the family’s attorney said.
“Great care has been taken to assure that this accident is properly investigated so that those responsible can be held accountable, so that nothing like this ever happens again,” attorney Thomas Mitchell said in a prepared statement.
In the months following the crash, Lidiane was able to return to Sprayberry High School, where she was chosen for the football homecoming court in the fall. Her uncle, Fabio Souza, has adopted her, and she now lives with his family, including Souza’s wife and young children.
After the crash, Souza told church members his nieces were like daughters to him. And when he learned of the crash, he left immediately for Florida to be by Lidiane’s side. It was Souza who told Lidiane the her family members had died.
“Uncle, are you going to take care of me?” Souza said Lidiane asked. “Of course,” Souza told her.
A week before she died, Adriana Carmo sent a text message to her brother, asking if he would take care of her youngest daughter, Lidiane. Souza initially wasn’t sure what his sister meant.
“That was the last text message he got from his sister,” Bobby Curtis, another pastor at the church, told The AJC on Monday.
But the message would later seem like eerie foreshadowing, as though his sister somehow knew her fate.
On Sunday, the congregation devoted part of the service to remembering the Carmo family, showing family photographs and praying together, Curtis said. Lidiane sat in the front row.
Souza again spoke to his church members, humbly telling them he couldn’t have survived the past year without them. He never expected to become a father to a teenager in the blink of an eye, but it’s a responsibility he’s vowed to fulfill.
Despite her grief, Lidiane says she is eager to one day share her story in her own words. In Twitter messages with a reporter, Lidiane offered a glimpse into the faith that has guided her through the unthinkable.
“If it’s what needs to be done for people to realize that miracles do happen, I’m all up for it,” Lidiane wrote. “Anything for God’s Kingdom. That’s how I was raised and that’s what I believe.”