Deadly wrong-way crash witness: ‘I had a deep sinking feeling’

Former Georgia police officer helped pull baby out of vehicle after Alachua County crash that left parents, 4-year-old brother dead

ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. – A former Georgia police officer was among a group of people who helped rescue a 6-month-old girl, who was the only member of a St. Marys family to survive a fiery wrong-way crash in Alachua County.

The baby’s father and mother, Christopher and Brittany Hesling, were killed in the head-on crash, which happened about 11:40 p.m. Saturday on State Road 24/Waldo Road. Her 4-year-old brother later died at a hospital.

James Jackson, the former Georgia police officer who saw the crash happen and pulled the young children out of the Toyota Rav4 with the help of two other men, shared the harrowing moments with News4Jax.

“My focus was on the children and we were able to break the window out from the side where the child was sitting behind the driver,” James Jackson said Monday.

The surviving child was recovering from minor injuries at last check and was expected to be released Monday from UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

The Florida Highway Patrol has not released the identity of the driver of the Hyundai Elantra, which troopers said was traveling the wrong way, who was also killed in the crash.

Jackson said he knew something bad was going to happen late Saturday evening when he saw multiple cars swerve to avoid the Hyundai traveling in the wrong direction on Waldo Road, a divided highway with a grassy median in the center.

“l had a deep sinking feeling," Jackson said. “I observed the unknown vehicle traveling west on the eastside-bound lane, going toward Gainesville in the wrong direction in that dark area between Waldo and Fairbanks.”

Jackson said he called 911 to report the situation, but it was too late. Troopers said the Hyundai collided head-on with the Toyota that 30-year-old Christopher Hesling, 31-year-old Brittany Hesling, 4-year-old Jack Hesling and 6-month-old Maggie Hesling were traveling in.

“It was surreal," Jackson said. “It was anything that you could think of, even on a movie.”

Jackson said that when he pulled over, it was too late to help the parents, so he and other bystanders pried open the vehicle to get the children.

“I was able to get the 4-year-old out of the window. At that time, the flames were really, really high, coming from the vehicle," he said.

Jackson said the group also pulled the baby to safety, and she seemed to be OK. He said the boy did not show obvious physical trauma but could not respond to verbal cues.

“He was unresponsive and had shallow breathing and he was in and out of consciousness, but he had shallow, deep breaths and we just consoled him and took him away from the scene because it just became very violent with the nature of the flames in the vehicle," Jackson said.

Troopers said Maggie Hesling was hospitalized with minor injuries and Jack Hesling was critically injured and taken to the hospital, where he later died.

Brittany Hesling's Facebook profile picture (Facebook)

Jackson said that in his years of military and law enforcement experience, he’s seen some traumatic events, but nothing quite like the crash Saturday night.

“Collectively, I’ve seen car fires, I’ve seen head-on collisions and I’ve seen other random car accidents," he said. “But all of the elements together in this one is just different. It’s just different. It never really gets easier.”

The surviving baby’s parents were high school sweethearts who were crowned Effingham County High School’s prom king and queen.

Troopers said they could not immediately identify the driver of the Hyundai because the car was so badly burned. A lieutenant with the Highway Patrol said troopers expect to release the name of the driver on Tuesday.

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