She’s lucky to be alive. Lucky not to be paralyzed. Lucky — even if you did hear some of the strain and fatigue in her voice — that she could speak by phone Tuesday from Hungary.
“I was sleeping with my back against the window glass when I heard a loud noise. It sounded like a tire popping except it was way louder than that ever could be,” said Sam MacKay, the former University of Dayton women’s basketball star who had just begun her pro career with the Uni Gyor team in Hungary’s A Division.
“I found out later that loud noise was when the car hit us pretty close to right where I was sitting.”
MacKay and her teammates were on their way to a preseason game in Sopron on Saturday when their big, white charter bus was hit by an aging, wrong-way driver who authorities say was drunk. The bus driver swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but the car still slammed into the side of the team transport and that’s when the mayhem unfolded.
“I woke up and I was scared and before I realized what was going on, I felt the bus up on two wheels and then it just started rolling,” MacKay said. “There was a lot of glass flying and I remember being in the air and slamming backward, then forward and I just kind of tucked my head and tried to hold on though I couldn’t do much at that point.
“The next thing I knew I was outside the bus and then the bus continued to roll a couple of more times. It wasn’t a very good scene at all — there were injuries left and right — but when I tried to get myself together and crawl to my closest teammate, I was dazed and couldn’t do it.
“Then a civilian, an innocent bystander, did something that probably saved my life. He wouldn’t let me move. He just kind of held me gently and talked to me and waited for medical help to arrive.”
Among her injuries MacKay was found to have three cracked vertebrae in her neck. Had they been displaced, she could have been paralyzed, or worse, she was later told.
Peter Tapodi, the team manager and its former assistant coach, was pronounced dead at the scene. Head coach Fuzy Akos died later in the hospital.
Sixteen others on the bus were injured, some seriously. Natasa Kovacevic, a 19-year-old forward from Serbia, was pulled from the wreckage by a teammate but her left leg was amputated at the knee.
“It was pretty rough” said UD coach Jim Jabir, who talked to MacKay by phone from the hospital afterwards. “She saw some really, really sad things out there.”
‘Got to get to her’
Back in suburban Columbus on Saturday, Sandy Richards, MacKay’s mom, didn’t learn of the accident until a few hours later.
“Sam was the one who finally called me – God love her – but I was mad at her at first,” Richards said by phone from Gyor, Hungary. “After the accident, she knew she had a neck injury, but she didn’t know the extent of it and didn’t want me to worry until she knew exactly what was going on with it.”
Jabir, who has talked to MacKay every day since the crash, said: “Someone told Sam that one of her vertebra cracks was very close to the spinal column and a quarter-inch either way and she could have been paralyzed.”
MacKay also suffered severe road rash over much of her body, especially the left side of her back and bottom, has several cuts, one of them deep and still needing repair, and she has a massive black eye that also needs stitch work.
“Once I heard what happened, all I could think was that I’ve got to get to her,” Sandy said. “I called Jim and he calmed me down and said we’ll figure this out. And once we did, we knew someone had to be there.”
During that time MacKay called Jabir: “I just listened because she was crying and so emotional,” he said. “I just let her vent.”
Meantime word of the accident reached Louie Suttmann, who had been the student manager for the Flyers women’s team from 2006 to 2009 and then a couple of years later spent a season as the program’s director of basketball operations.
He’s pretty much a can-do guy — he’s a boat captain, an ordained minister, was a teacher and coach, has biked across America, just climbed Mount Kilimanjaro — and now serves as an administrator at the American International School in Salzburg, Austria.
He got on a bullet train early Sunday and some four hours later was with MacKay, who had been released from the hospital but was barely able to move.
“He was awesome,” she said. “He stayed with me, monitored my fluids and every chance he got, he was putting water in my mouth.”
He was just as big a help to Sandy when she arrived Monday. “I’ve never been in Europe before and don’t speak the language,” she said. “He talked with doctors, helped me get around and got me comfortable enough to where I feel like I can take care of her now.”
Before Suttmann left, he did one other thing that no one — at least at one Hungarian dress store — will forget.
“This is sooo Louie,” Jabir said laughing. “Sam can’t wear clothes right now because of the way her back is all cut and scraped. So her mom and Louie went out to find her a sun dress. When they got to a shop, they couldn’t figure out the size and Sandy said, ‘Well, I’m not her size, so I can’t try them on.’
“Louie said, ‘I’m more her size,’ and so there he was trying on one dress after another.”
Back to Hungary?
After three seasons as the backup to starting point guard Patrice Lalor, MacKay took over the Flyers offense last season and helped lead the team to a 28-3 record and the second round of the NCAA tournament.
She averaged 10.5 points and 4.7 rebounds, won third team All-Atlantic 10 honors and when she signed with the Seattle Storm in training camp, she became the first Flyers player to ink a contract with the WNBA.
Cut in the preseason, she came to Hungary a little over a month ago and joined the Uni Gyor team that had several Hungarians, some Serbians and one other American, Dannielle Diamant, a 6-foot-5 center from Northwestern.
“My teammates and I hit it off right off the bat,” MacKay said.”Our personalities meshed and though we were still getting to know each other, we’d already done several things together. We’d gone to Vienna and Budapest and been to a big mall near here.
“But now since this has happened, the bond has become incredible between us. So many of us are hurt and we can’t get to each other, but we’re texting back and forth. The girl who lost her foot? She just messaged me to ask how I am. The character on this team is incredible.”
“I’m going to be OK, but until my neck heals up, I’m not allowed to travel. When I am cleared enough, I’d like to come back home to see my family and spend time with loved ones. I especially want to come and say thank you to all the people from Dayton who have shown me all this love and support.”
Her mom agreed: “I can’t tell you what a great family we have in Dayton. And her teammates here have been just unbelievable, too. They are looking out for me and they care about her.”
And that’s why MacKay said she’ll also return to Hungary:
“I don’t have any timeline for playing or not playing. I’m just going to try to get healthy and come back no matter what. Even if that means I don’t pick up a ball, I’m going to finish the year with this team. We’re gonna play. It might be a little rough, but we owe that to Akos and Peter. We have to stay together. We have to be appreciative. And I am
“I know I’m lucky to be alive.”