JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A bad crash in New Jersey left a Jacksonville couple badly injured. Now they're trying to recover physically and emotionally as they move on without a car, home or source of income.
The wreck happened on the New Jersey turnpike, southeast of Philadelphia, the morning of June 24 as the sun was coming up. Carlos Mattei, 61, lost his leg and almost lost his life. He was airlifted to the hospital with critical injuries. His fiancé, Olga Rivera was also rushed to the hospital with serious injuries.
"We were going to my son's wedding," Rivera said.
It was supposed to be a happy occasion for Rivera and her fiancée Mattei. They had driven their Nissan Xterra from Jacksonville and made it to New Jersey.
They just left the gas station when tragedy struck.
"Something hit us really bad from the back," Rivera recalled. "And that took us out of the highway. The [SUV] went flipping a couple of times."
Rivera was trapped inside in serious pain.
"So I had to crawl. I started screaming and nobody was around," she said, with tears in her eyes.
Mattei was nowhere to be found. Moments later a Good Samaritan stopped to help.
"He was the one who helped me getting out of the car," Rivera said.
Troopers said Mattei was ejected from the SUV, ending up about 70 feet away from his vehicle. He was in bad shape.
"I didn't know if he was alive or dead," Rivera said. "So I started screaming for him. Going for him. And he moved his hand."
A news helicopter recorded the scene as rescuers got there. The dramatic images show the couple's SUV deep in the woods. Medics loaded Rivera into an ambulance and airlifted Mattei to the hospital. Investigators noted, at the time, they believed he might not survive because his injuries were so severe.
But Mattei defied the odds.
"They were thinking that I was going to die," he told News4Jax from a hospital nearly two months after the crash. "No, I am here!"
Mattei broke 14 ribs, both hips, and lost his left leg. His wounds remain bandaged and he uses a wheelchair to get around now.
"Everything changed from that day," he said.
Mattei was still emotional because he said the driver that hit him never tried to help.
"He threw me away from the highway," Mattei recalled. "(And) kept driving away from the accident. He doesn't care. He tried to run away."
According to a New Jersey State Police accident report, 24-year-old Charles Miller IV stopped his pickup truck 3/10ths of a mile up the road, pulling over onto the shoulder. Investigators found him and issued a ticket for careless driving after multiple witnesses said he was speeding.
Authorities concluded Miller was at fault for causing the wreck. They noted, however, that the glare from the sun may have been a contributing factor, as Miller claimed the morning of the crash.
Miller, who's the son of a Salem County New Jersey's Sheriff, has been ticketed for traffic violations three times before. According to New Jersey public records, Miller was involved in a crash where he hit a vehicle from behind in 2011. That crash, local media reported, was minor.
News4Jax attempted to contact Miller for comment, but he did not return messages left on phone numbers listed for him. A woman answered one of the numbers but said Miller's family would not be commenting on the crash.
Rivera and Mattei hope the young driver learns a lesson from the crash and slows down. They believe the wreck was preventable.
"I was hoping for at least an 'I'm sorry,' but nobody called, nobody approached us to say at least, I'm sorry," Rivera said.
Mattei lost more than his leg in the accident though. He lost his job as a big rig truck driver, causing him to lose the apartment the couple rented.
Their two cats, which were in the SUV during the crash, also disappeared. Volunteers in New Jersey are searching, but haven't found them.
"I lost my cats, my car, my house, my life," Mattei said. "I need to start again, from zero."
Now the couple has hired Jacksonville attorney Brent Latour, of the Law Office of John M. Philips. They are hoping he can help them get back some of what they lost.
"Money cannot replace the losses they have endured," Latour said. "(But) can at least help them rebuild it and help Carlos do exactly as he wants to do, as he said he would. Moving forward they are going to need more permanent housing, obviously a car, and a potential source of income moving forward."
Latour said he hoped the insurance companies involved would take care of the couple's extensive medical bills and lost wages due to the crash.
Moving forward is something Mattei is determined to do. News4Jax visited him at Brooks Rehabilitation on Jacksonville's Southside, where he's been a patient since getting discharged from the hospital in New Jersey. Doctors, nurses and therapists are helping him recover and are teaching him to walk again.
Mattei and Rivera vow they will get their lives back, but they're having to do it one step at a time. The couple still has plans to marry, but those are delayed because of the crash. Mattei said he wants to be a truck driver again, but he knows he will have to learn how to drive without one of his legs.