SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Sitting in Jimmy DeLoach’s office, it’s clear he loves his daughter, Abbie. Photos and handwritten notes hang on the walls — pieces of Abbie her father can hold on to forever.
April 22, 2015 started as an exciting day for Abbie DeLoach, Caitlyn Baggett, Morgan Bass, Emily Clark and Catherine McKay Pittman. The group of nursing students were driving on I-16, driving towards their last day of clinical rotations in Savannah.
But that all changed just before 6 a.m., when a tractor-trailer drove into a line of cars, leaving the five students dead.
“My daughter called me, Annie, and said that Abbie had been involved in an accident,” Jimmy DeLoach said. “And she said, ‘Dad, she’s dead.’ That’s when you really realize that your daughter is not going to be there to greet you.”
Abbie’s father described her as a bright light, fierce competitor and someone who had faith stronger than most.
Jimmy was traveling for business and immediately got on a plane back home to Savannah. It was a day he described as a nightmare.
“You’ll go to bed with an emptiness,” Jimmy said. “But you’ll wake up the next morning and the sun will be there, knowing that you have got an opportunity to help someone to change their lives forever.”
The fatal crash also changed Georgia forever.
Drivers on I-16 in Bryan County pass the Georgia Southern Nursing Angels Memorial Bridge every day, a dedication made by Gov. Brian Kemp.
In 2018, Georgia became a hands-free state — a bill the Abbie DeLoach Foundation advocated for.
One year after the crash, Jimmy started the foundation to help put a stop to what ended the five students’ lives.
“One of the healing aspects I’ve been able to download and to understand is you have to share your grief,” he said. “The more you share, the stronger you can go. Our mission is to make sure that you don’t receive that phone call. Because it is one that will take the breath out of you and just throw you into a darkness.”
It’s a darkness Jimmy said he will never be able to get over, but will continue to work through.
When asked what he would say to the driver responsible for the crash, Jimmy said he would like to talk to them face-to-face.
“I have made tons of mistakes in my life and if there were some I could take back that damaged a lot of people, I would,” Jimmy said. “But at my point in life, I can’t do that. I would let him know that I have been forgiven,” he said. “That whatever he has done has been forgiven. And hopefully at the end of our lifetime that we have made a difference in other people’s lives. That’s what I would tell him.”
During this Distracted Driving Awareness Month, the Abbie DeLoach Foundation is encouraging people to take a pledge to put distractions down and keep your eyes on the road.
The foundation also gives out scholarships to local college students who demonstrate academic excellence, are involved in service work or athletics — all things that were part of Abbie’s life. Next Friday, 29 students will be celebrated at the annual scholarship luncheon.
Since 2016, the foundation has contributed $1.25 million to students at local schools, including Georgia Southern, Savannah State and the University of Georgia.