Jacqueline Saburido was taking a break from college when she came to the United States to study English. She had been in Texas for less than a month when the crash occurred that changed her life completely.
The drunk driver who hit her got seven years. She got life.
Meet Jacqui Saburido.
Dancer, Swimmer, Girlfriend, Daughter
Jacqui Saburido was born and grew up in Caracas, Venezuela. An only child, she lived with her father after her parents divorced. She loved going to the beach, dancing, and hanging out with her friends.
Jacqui wanted to help her dad run his air conditioning factory after she finished her industrial engineering studies at the university. But first she wanted to learn to speak English.
Not Everyone Died
Natalia Bennett and four others were headed home from a birthday party in Austin. Her front seat passenger was Jacqui Saburido. It was a little past 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, September 19, 1999.
Reggie Stephey, 18, was also on his way home. He had been drinking. Less than a mile from his driveway, Reggie drifted across the center stripe and hit Natalia’s car head on. Natalia Bennett and Laura Guerrero died at the scene.
Jacqui suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body after the car caught fire.
Hear the 911 Call
One Choice. Many Victims.
Reggie was a high school senior in Austin. A self-described jock, he had hopes of going to college on an athletic scholarship. Those dreams disappeared when he wound up drinking with friends and tried to drive home. He drifted across the center line and crashed his SUV into a car with five people inside.
Two of them died on the spot. Jacqui Saburido nearly burned to death when the car caught fire.
Reggie was convicted of two counts of intoxication manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary. He was released in 2008. His life will never be the same.
A Lifetime of Recovery
The only thing Jacqui remembers about the crash is the whir of the blades on the helicopter that came to rush her to the hospital. Extensive third-degree burns scorched her eyes and left her blind; melted off her hair; took her ears, lips, nose, and eyelids; and robbed her of the use of her hands. Doctors did not expect her to survive.
But she did. Jacqui has had well over 100 operations since the crash. When her medical bills topped $5 million several years ago, she lost count of the total expenses. She has no health insurance.
The carefree, fun-filled life Jacqui once knew as a teenager in Caracas is gone forever. Her appearance and her ability to live independently went up in flames over a decade ago, along with her plans for a career and a family. She continues to be unsure of what her future holds.
Photo credit: Rodolfo Gonzalez and the Austin American-Statesman
Father. Caregiver. Best Friend.
Amadeo Saburido, Jacqui’s father, has been by her side from the start. He left his business, his home, and his country to nurse Jacqui back to health and take care of her. Days turned into months, months into years. He dressed her, bathed her, and fed her. He was there before and after every operation.
Amadeo remains the single most important person in her life.
One Billion and Counting
At one of her many press conferences, Jacqui once valiantly said, “Even if it means sitting here in front of a camera with no ears, no nose, no eyebrows, no hair, I’ll do this a thousand times if it will help someone make a wise decision.” Her desire to spare others from the horrors of her experience led Jacqui to participate in the Texas Department of Transportation’s campaign urging people not to drink and drive.
Since the accident, she has granted dozens of interviews all over the world. She’s even been on The Oprah Winfrey Show – twice.
By last count, one BILLION people worldwide had heard her story.
A New Life
Jacqui used to feel sorry for herself and cry every day – for five minutes. And then she got on with what she had to do. Doctors’ appointments. Surgeries. Therapy. Talking on the phone with friends. Trips. Emails.
Over the years, she has regained some of her vision and some use of her hands.
The life she has now is not the life she expected or one she ever wanted. But it is her life and she’s grown accustomed to it.
Touched by Others
Jacqui receives letters from kids in school. People send donations to help pay for the costs of her operations. She gets greeting cards and stuffed animals. Children draw her pictures. People recognize her on the street and say hello.
Jacqui touches people, and in turn, she is touched by their outpouring of love and support.
Despite the many daily hardships she endures, her faith and her many supporters motivate her to press on.