Accident prompts teen to stress seat belt safety

Presley Melton, 16, holds a photo of her friend, Lindsay Craven, who was killed last year in a car crash that also injured Melton. Neighbors of Craven donated money to buy a fountain and plaque in her memory at Rock Hill High School, shown above.
Presley Melton, 16, holds a photo of her friend, Lindsay Craven, who was killed last year in a car crash that also injured Melton. Neighbors of Craven donated money to buy a fountain and plaque in her memory at Rock Hill High School, shown above.

The diamond necklace Presley Melton wears around her neck almost never comes off.

It belonged to her 17-year-old friend, Lindsay Craven, who was killed last October in a car accident that almost took Presley's life, too. The necklace causes a small rash on Presley's neck, but she doesn't want to remove it.

"It's just something I can put my hands on," said Presley, who remembers Lindsay wearing the necklace. The diamond that dangles from a chain was part of a set of earrings. "If I get upset, I just put my hands on it. It calms me."

Sixteen-year-old Presley wears the necklace, found at the scene of the car accident, when she speaks before teenagers around the state about seat belt safety. Presley talks about Lindsay's death and her own long road to recovery.

Every bone in her face was shattered, and almost 20 metal plates hold it together. Her lungs were burned from the aspirated fluid she vomited.

Her left eyelid is closed because of a brain injury, and there's a rod in her right leg. She wears one brace on her broken left arm and another on her left leg. Her nose is made from bone grafted from her hip, and her pelvis and ribs were cracked.

But Presley is alive, and she knows that talking about her experience might be powerful enough to save the life of someone else. "If I'm helping someone, it's worth it."

Presley doesn't remember anything about the accident, and until today, she didn't feel ready to speak publicly about it to people in Rock Hill. Today, she will.

Presley will speak at a Love Ride benefit being held for herself and Lindsay's family. Sign-up will begin at 1 p.m. at Northwestern High School. Motorcycles and cars will travel to South Pointe High School, where Presley will speak. The ride will end at Rock Hill High School.

The accident happened Oct. 7, when Presley went home with Lindsay after a trip to the Rock Hill Galleria. Lindsay was getting ready to spend the night at another friend's house, but she wanted to buy some lip balm. Her lips had been chapped, and she was planning to ride horses and four-wheelers the next day.

Police say Lindsay was driving south on Neely Creek Road in the rain. She entered a curve and lost control of the Nissan Altima. The car ran off the road into an open embankment and overturned several times.

Neither girl was wearing a seat belt, and both were thrown from the car. Lindsay was dead at the scene. Presley was eventually airlifted to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

She spent 56 days in the hospital, finally returning home in December. For 31 days, she was in a coma. For two weeks, she needed an oscillator to breathe for her.

And she is still recovering. Next month, she will have facial surgery, which involves the removal of her hair. The rod in her right leg will be removed. She still needs more surgeries for her left eye, ears and left arm, but those procedures haven't been scheduled.

Speaking out

In April, Presley decided it was time to speak out about the dangers of not wearing a seat belt. Her parents, Bruce and Peggy Melton, will also speak. Presley's sister, Kendall Melton, hasn't spoken yet.

Presley uses a slide show with photos of herself before and after the accident, as well as X-rays that show the broken bones and the plates that hold the bones in place. There's a photo of Lindsay and a picture of Presley at Lindsay's grave.

Cpl. Bryan McDougald of the S.C. Highway Patrol heard Presley's first presentation in April at Great Falls High School. They had both been invited to talk. She had never before spoken publicly about the accident.

Presley's courage and strength got McDougald's attention.

"When I heard her message it made me . . . It affected me," McDougald said. "What she brings to those kids is something true and real. She's one of them. They believe in what she says."

Days earlier, Bruce Melton had spoken alone about the accident to students at Rock Hill and Northwestern high schools.

McDougald asked the Meltons to be part of the S.C. Department of Public Safety's Families of Highway Fatalities. The program has a speakers bureau for victims of car accidents or their family members to speak and promote safety. Other programs for grieving families also are offered.

The program, developed in 2005, is the first of its kind in the nation and has approximately 100 members statewide, said coordinator Faith Yingling in Columbia. Only 40 members are active, and fewer than 10 are teens, said Faith Yingling, coordinator of the S.C. Department of Public Safety's Families of Highway Fatalities.

So far, the Meltons have visited about 10 public and private high schools, including R.B. Stall in North Charleston and Spring Valley and A.C. Flora in Columbia.

After the Meltons visit a school, they receive e-mails from students. A recent e-mail from a student at A.C. Flora High School stated: "This subject is one that I had thought about before, because our good family friend was killed because he wasn't wearing his seat belt and was thrown from the car and the car flipped on him and killed him; however, that didn't make me wear a seat belt. I knew damage was done but not how much till today, so thank you."

Making an impact

Responses like those make Presley and her family, as well as the Cravens, know they're having an impact.

"We're so glad she is able to do that and she is truly a miracle from God," said Sandra Craven, Lindsay's mother. Of Lindsay, she said, "It helps me to know that she has not been forgotten."

The past few weeks have been especially difficult for the Cravens. Lindsay would have graduated from Rock Hill High School in May. Holidays such as Mother's Day and Father's Day are painful.

The family has been able to cope with Lindsay's death the best they know how, and they keep in touch with the Meltons. Sandra and Steve Craven are known to Presley as Mama Craven and Daddy Craven.

"We have a great support system," said Sandra Craven, noting the family includes sons, Matt, 21, and Winston, 13. "You can't stop living because they stopped living."

Recently, the Cravens' neighbors in Planters Ridge neighborhood, off Harmony Road south of Rock Hill, had a concrete fountain with a plaque installed in a 20- foot-by-30-foot flowered area at Rock Hill High in memory of Lindsay.

The Cravens have heard about the positive response from Presley's speaking.

"I think it hits home with the kids because so many of them are just like them," Sandra Craven said, referring to Lindsay and Presley. "They jump into the car without putting on a seat belt and go to the store. I wouldn't want any other family to go through what we went through. If one person would just buckle up ..."

That's the message Presley hopes everyone -- not just teens -- will remember.

When the Meltons travel to speak, they are responsible for their own food, gas and sometimes overnight lodging. Bruce Melton has to spend a day out of work.

Yingling said the program is working towards getting itself established as a nonprofit organization to help support the members financially with expenses. For now, those with the speakers bureau can ride with a highway patrolman to the school.

Bruce Melton is committed and hopes they can get financial support to continue spreading the message, not only to schools, but to churches, organizations and businesses.

"We believe in what we are doing," he said. "We are trying to make seat belts cool in the state of South Carolina. We'll go to every school in the state as long as they'll listen."

• What: The Love Ride for Presley Melton and the late Lindsay Craven

• When: Sign up at 1 p.m. today at Northwestern High School. Kickstands up at 2 p.m.

• Details: Cost is $10 per person. Bikes will lead; a police escort will be there. All cars welcome. The route will begin at Northwestern High, stop at South Pointe High and end at Rock Hill High, where food and entertainment will be available. Presley will speak at South Pointe High. Proceeds will benefit the Melton and Craven families. For more details, visit www.caringbridge.org, click on visit a CaringBridge site, type pressleymelton.