Couple escapes tragedy after tree crushes car during storm

Freehold Borough officials say they will ask state again to address area on South St.

Staff Writer

 Tiago Lucas, Kristin Villante Tiago Lucas, Kristin Villante FREEHOLD — Kristin Villante, 24, of East Windsor, and Tiago Lucas, 29, of Colts Neck, were driving through Freehold Borough on their way to dinner in Asbury Park on July 7 when life for both of them changed in an instant.

The couple were sitting in a car and waiting for the traffic light at South Street (Route 79) and Park Avenue to change just as a fierce rainstorm and high winds swept into the borough.

At that moment, a large tree was either struck by lightning or blown down by wind. The tree fell directly on top of the 2011 Honda Accord Crosstour in which they were seated. Somehow, Villante and Lucas managed to slither out the driver’s-side window, which was the only access point available for them to escape.

Kristin’s mother, Linda Villante, called the couple’s escape a miracle and said, “We are very lucky and so very grateful that Kristin and Tiago are both alive.”

She said Lucas saved her daughter’s life, stating, “It was a very noble thing to do. He was able to keep his head about him a bit more during everything and he made sure they both got out of the car.”

The young woman, who was driving the vehicle, and Lucas were taken by ambulance to Jersey Shore University Medical Center, Neptune. Villante was diagnosed with a concussion and kept overnight. Lucas received facial stitches and was released

REGIONAL INTEREST  that night. Both sustained bruises and contusions.

Villante was readmitted to the hospital on July 16, where it was found she had two bulging neck discs and inflammation in her shoulder. She was released from the hospital on July 18.

“We feel so blessed. In a world where so many bad things happen, we are so happy that people in the area came to check on them to make sure they were OK,” Villante’s mother said.

One man took the couple into his car and sheltered them from the storm until police and EMTs arrived. She added that the police officers and the EMTs were very supportive and reassuring.

Villante and her husband, Salvatore, arrived at the scene of the accident after receiving a call from Lucas.

“It was a horrific scene, like something out of a movie,” she said, remembering the traffic tie-ups, the rain, the lights on police cars, fire trucks and ambulances.

Villante said Lucas’s father died a few years ago and her 4-year-old niece died in August 2011.

“I believe both of them were there,” she said. “Until this happened, I didn’t know what I believed in any more, but you come this close to losing someone and, well. … We are so very grateful to God for saving them.”

Thinking back to the events of that night, Kristin and Tiago said they heard a crack and suddenly a tree was on the car, crushing Tiago’s side and pinning him there.

“My first thought was, ‘Is my girlfriend OK?’ ” he said. “My second thought was to get her out of the car.”

Kristin said her window was open enough to get her head out.

“I started screaming for help. My door was jammed. We couldn’t get out,” she said, recalling that she started to panic. “I lost it.”

Something made the young woman push the window’s power button and the window went down just enough to allow the couple to climb out of the car.

“It was so weird. Everything else on the car was crushed, the roof, the passengerside door, but the driver’s-side window frame was intact, the only thing on the car that was not crushed,” she said, adding that the event was “life changing” for her.

“You cannot take life for granted. Everything happens so quickly. People don’t realize that in the blink of an eye you can lose your life. You need to live each day as if it’s your last,” she said.

Lucas said he is very grateful and blessed that he and Kristin are “still here” and will continue being grateful and enjoying the relationship he shares with his girlfriend.

Kristin added, “There is no doubt, we feel we had angels with us on that day.”

The aging trees on South Street have been an ongoing issue in Freehold Borough over the years. Councilman George Schnurr referenced the Villante accident at a Borough Council meeting on July 16 when he said some of the problems caused by felled trees “could have been avoided.”

“The tree on South Street that came down in the storm is the responsibility of the state since it is a state highway [Route 79],” Schnurr said. “Our former mayor, Michael Wilson, asked the state via letter on June 3, 2008, to have the aforementioned tree, as well as others, taken down. Mayor Wilson received correspondence back from the state on Aug. 18, 2008, denying the request for tree removals.

“The state reported that ‘the trees mentioned are healthy trees and will not be removed at this time.’ Mayor Wilson’s request to the state was made because of area residents who complained about the trees on South Street between Barkalow Avenue and Park Avenue.

“I have asked Borough Administrator Joe Bellina to reinitiate the request for tree removals based upon recent circumstances,” Schnurr said, adding, “This is a case where an ounce of prevention would have been worth a pound of cure.”

Bellina said Mayor Nolan Higgins will be sending a letter to the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation referencing the situation with the aging trees.