October 09, 2017
The text message arrived on September 26 at exactly 7:19 p.m.
“I’m here” were the words Laura Brooks sent to her friend Bridget Hanna to let her know she had arrived home on Richmond Street in Philadelphia’s Bridesburg neighborhood.
Brooks was just back from a week at Disney World, and Hanna was stopping by for a visit.
“I’m here too," Hanna responded by text minutes later, "but I can’t get down the street since there’s been an accident.”
She would get no reply.
While crossing the street to get home, Brooks, 24, was struck by a 2005 Chevy sedan.
When her mother, Laura Chrzanowski, arrived home from work a few minutes later, she saw one of her daughter’s white Vans sneakers near a puddle of blood in front of the house three or four down from where Laura was struck.
According to her family, Brooks hit the windshield and was thrown so violently that she suffered injuries ranging from brain swelling that required a portion of her skull to be removed, multiple skull fractures, shattered teeth, collapsed lungs, a busted nose and broken legs.
“She looked like a broken action figure,” said Chrzanowski who clutched her daughter’s bloody hand as tightly as possible during an ambulance ride that felt like an eternity. “We’re not talking about one surgery and a cast here.”
More than a week later, Brooks remains in a medically induced coma at Temple University Hospital. She’s in the surgical intensive care unit on the ninth floor, her breathing guided by tubes running down her throat.
The extent of Brooks’ brain injuries won’t be known until she wakes up, and a steep recovery from her other injuries lie ahead.
PhillyVoice is withholding the driver’s name because no charges have been filed. In an exchange via Facebook Messenger last week, she said she’s not allowed to speak about the incident but that she hopes Brooks fully recovers and feels bad about what was merely an accident.
“The (driver and her) family joins the entire community in praying for Ms. Brooks’ speedy recovery,” said her attorney Michael Fenerty during a Thursday night phone interview. “They will continue to cooperate with the investigation in any way they’re needed.”
Amid their grief, shock and desperation, though, Brooks’ support network harbors a deep level of anger.
Things aren’t as cut and dried as they seem, they said.
Chrzanowski filed a citizens’ complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) on Friday.
In that complaint – and during an interview with PhillyVoice in Brooks’ hospital room on Thursday – Brooks' family levels many accusations.
They claim police at the scene pushed, threatened to use a Taser and arrest them that night if they didn’t stop asking the driver what had happened.
They maintain that a relative of the driver, who just happens to be a police officer, responded to the scene from outside of the 24th District, where the accident happened.
They’re also livid that a toxicology test wasn’t administered to determine whether the driver was operating a vehicle under the influence.
“We’re not saying she was under the influence of anything,” Chrzanowski said. “But, we’ll never know since they didn’t do the test."
"Why are we being treated like this? Where’s the compassion, the empathy, the sympathy?" – Laura Chrzanowski
According to the IAB complaint, when family members asked a police accident investigator why the driver wasn't tested, his response was, “I didn’t f***ing have to because I have no reason to believe she was under the influence.”
Pennsylvania law doesn't require the tests unless law enforcement officers suspect driving under the influence.
"I can confirm that there is an active investigation on the 3700 block of Richmond Street that is ongoing," a police spokesman said Friday afternoon. "I cannot confirm any names or details."
Meanwhile, Laura Brooks' family is juggling a deep concern for her well-being and recovery, and a desperate search for answers.
“Witnesses who saw the entire incident said there was no way the driver wasn’t flying down the street,” she said. “Every doctor that’s looked at (Laura) has said that it’s just not possible, that they have no reason to believe that the car that hit her was going 25 miles an hour.
“Judging by the damage, most doctors were estimating upwards towards 40 or 50 (mph). We’ve even tried it ourselves, slamming on the brakes at 25, 35, 45. That’s when we started to question the investigation," Chrzanowski continued. "I’m frustrated and angry. Why are we being treated like this? Where’s the compassion, the empathy, the sympathy? When does that factor into the equation?”
Laura Brooks is one of four sisters. She and her twin Rachel are the youngest of Ray and Laura Chrzanowski’s children.
Brooks – who goes by the nickname Pesos – works with her mom as a debt collector. Within the past year, she let it be known that the office life just isn’t for her. She applied to both the police and fire academies in Philadelphia.
Sure, her mom didn’t want her “to be the person running into a fire when everyone was running out,” but she accepted that her daughter was going to follow her aspirations.
Brooks took the test, did the interviews and passed the physicals. But a mail mix-up brought about by the family's move from Port Richmond to Bridesburg left Brooks needing to reapply, said Chrzanowski.
“I guess (a law-enforcement career) won’t be happening now,” she said.
The family estimates more than 300 relatives and friends have made their way to Temple University Hospital to visit Brooks.
Two at a time, they’re permitted to head up to Room 946.
There, the windows are covered with a sign that says “We Love You,” along with a slew of pictures of Brooks and friends taped to the window or placed along the window sill near teddy bears and inspirational knick knacks.
There’s a line of photos from September’s Disney trip.
Brooks, who attended Adaire Alexander School and Charles Carroll High in Port Richmond, lay under a green blanket on the bed, tubes down her throat.
A black line is drawn on her forehead to show where a portion of her skull was removed to help alleviate brain swelling. The sounds of a ventilator echo throughout as her chest rises and drops mechanically.
Much of her hair has been shaved off, scarring visible on the top of her head where a bolt has been installed.
There are wires snaking back, entangled in her blood-stained dark hair.
Laura Brooks is there, but she isn’t.
While her eyes appear somewhat open, she’s unable to communicate. Still, they say she looks a lot better now than when she initially arrived at the hospital.
Her head was so swollen she was unrecognizable, Chrzanowski said.
Her mother and sister Erin whispered in her ear and held her hand during Thursday’s visit.
“You gotta wake up for me,” the mother said.
Mother and sister and father Ray know Laura can hear them, and that’s why they don’t want to leave her side.
In talking about the prognosis, doctors have used running analogies since Brooks is a runner. If recovery is a marathon, they said, “she doesn’t even have her shoes on yet.”
Laura Chrzanowski wasn’t home when everything happened. Ray was driving her back from work when their phones started lighting up.
At first, they thought the “Laura got hit” messages meant she was backing out of the driveway and the car got clipped, the type of thing that insurance would take care of.
“Two minutes later, it was, ‘No, you don’t understand: Laura got hit, and it’s really bad. Get here quickly,” the mother recalled.
Soon, tragedy and anger would merge into an emotion that’s governed the family’s reaction in the days since.
They said police rudely forced them to stay out of “the closed f***ing crime scene.”
Chrzanowski just wanted to hear an explanation from the driver “even if she lied to me, just said she had sun in her eyes, just tell me something” but wasn’t permitted to approach her as her daughter lay in the street bleeding from the ears.
“I wish I could take away every bit of pain she has and bring it onto myself instead.” – Laura Chrzanowski
“Just a little bit of compassion. It would have been nice to get that,” she said.
The family questions allegations that Brooks “darted out from between two cars” considering they say cars are rarely parked on that side of the street.
They’ve also gotten into social media fights with the driver, mostly fueled by their belief that it was insensitive for the driver to post a selfie with the tagline, “My life is completely shattering to a million pieces but I still sit and look pretty.”
That didn’t sit well with Brooks’ childhood friend, Kate McCandless.
“Meanwhile, our friend’s life is literally shattered,” she said. “Friends from Laura’s family reached out to her to ask and express their concerns for the post and the lack of sympathy this girl has shown. In return, they were met with responses from multiple people encouraging them to leave the situation and driver alone, but we want answers!”
A subsequent post about the driver needing a ride to get her phone fixed led them to wonder whether this was a case of distracted driving.
“There have been no repercussions at all,” said Brooks’ oldest sister, Erin, in the hospital lobby.
From the other side, though, it looked like an onslaught of harassment and judgment, and all that the driver can do is reiterate that it was an accident that she'll have to live with for the rest of her life.
The outpouring of support – including a beef-and-beer benefit scheduled for later this month – has overwhelmed the family.
Chrzanowski said it would take the rest of her life to thank everybody who has reached out in the their time of need.
As the family spoke Thursday while doctors and nurses took X-rays of their daughter, the worry and anger faded away for a few moments.
They told of a young woman who’s the “favorite aunt” with a “smile could light up a room.”
Her father said Laura could be a stand-up comedian. (“You’ll laugh till it hurts,” he said.)
Her mother joked that one of her daughter’s eyes gets bigger than the other in photos taken of her, drawing comparisons to the actor Forest Whitaker.
“I wish I could take away every bit of pain she has and bring it onto myself instead,” said the mother.
“I’ve had a rough rough life, but I’ve always worked to make sure my children were as safe as possible,” rued the father.
With color coming back into Brooks’ skin, replacing the gray, waxy hue that left them thinking “she looked dead,” and the pressure on her brain dropping substantially, they’ve seen some optimistic signs in recent days.
Having just lost a niece to an overdose, they were concerned that Brooks is being administered Fentanyl in the hospital, but realize the doctors know best when it comes to these things.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Chrzanowski, “but we know we’ll see her through this. Even if this was an accident, I just don’t think the Philadelphia Police Department followed proper procedures on it.”
It soon came time for the family to clear the room so the medical professionals could do their thing, and Laura Brooks could get the rest she needs.
The weekend would bring a moment of hope when Laura moved her jaw as her mother wiped her face, and no seizure activity despite "seizure-like moments." There would also be nervous fears about an orthopedic surgery scheduled for Monday.
But those didn't factor into an emotional moment on Thursday when Laura's mother walked over to the bed to say goodbye for the day.
“I love you Laura. Laura, I love you,” she said, leaning down toward her daughter's ear, speaking loudly enough so she could hear it – hopefully.
“Laura, get some sleep. I’ll be back soon, baby.”