BALTIMORE - Former Baltimore police officer Teresa Rigby hasn’t done many things since she was knocked off the Jones Falls Expressway on a June morning in 2011.
She hasn’t driven on the JFX. She hasn’t visited the spot where she fell. And she’s never talked about the accident that ended her career, until now.
There is a ticking clock that accounts for each moment that passes on the JFX. It sits perched above the highway, under the lights of the Pepsi logo. That clock holds on to time that for Teresa Rigby, is lost. She is missing exactly 10,080 minutes counted by that clock. A week of her life is gone. It was an erased in an accident that stopped time, at least for her.
"It's really scary. I think about it every single day,” Rigby told us in her first interview about the accident, “I don't think there's one day that goes by that I don't visualize how the accident happened, thinking about how people told me it happened."
Friends, family and colleagues have to rewind to explain to Teresa what happened on that day in 2011 because she doesn’t remember a second of it. She cannot recall the wreck, the fall, the scene or the chaos captured on police dispatch as officers came running for a call of Signal 13, officer down.
All Rigby knows about her accident is what she's heard from others and seen on television. "I saw myself on TV, I was like ‘Wow! I really did fall’. It was unbelievable," she said.
For Rigby it was an unbelievable ending to a day that started routine. She left roll call that morning for a call for a disabled vehicle in the northbound lanes of Interstate 83. With then-three years on the force of the Baltimore Police Department, it was the kind of call she was accustomed to handling.
Rigby parked her cruiser on the side of highway, with her lights and sirens going. As she stood calling for a tow truck, a passing driver hit her car, knocking her off the JFX down 30-feet onto the concrete below.
“If it wasn't for those people spotting me, who knows when they would have found me. And I wouldn't be here today," Rigby said.
But Teresa is still here. She is a wounded warrior, a woman with a slight limp who wears a “Survivor” hat to spread a message of strength, which she says comes from being as low as you can get and climbing back up, step by step.
The fall shattered Teresa's left leg, stole parts of her memory and filled her body with metal pieces that will never come out. But the injury she's most self-conscious about is her face. She sees invisible scars the rest of the world doesn’t even notice. Those scars kept her in relative hiding between surgeries to fix her broken jaw and reconstruct her face.
During her rehab, Rigby only let her family take pictures of her at a distance. She stayed mostly out of the spotlight in the months following the crash, appearing briefly at a Baltimore church where kids made her a get well banner. Each step into the building was a tremendous effort for Teresa.
"I lost all of my independence in the beginning, every bit of it,” she said, “I couldn't drive. I couldn't walk. I couldn't go to the mall to go shopping. All those things were taken away from me."
Her independence was taken away by a now 23-year-old with a suspended license, driving a car that didn't even belong to him. Robert Vanderford was given fine, points on his license and community service for causing the wreck that changed the course of Teresa's life. A civil lawsuit against him has dragged on for more than a year.
We asked Teresa if she was angry with Vanderford.
“To some degree I am," she said. "Because he took my life away. I'm alive but my life is gone ."
The life Rigby had as an officer is over. Her injuries made it impossible to return as a police officer so she's now officially retired, on Line of Duty Disability from the Baltimore Police Department. But she has a new role she hasn’t spoken about publicly: mother.
"Everyone was surprised when I became pregnant but I say, ‘Hey, the handicapped need love too’. I'm still human," Rigby said.
Teresa’s daughter Talia, is who she credits for keeping her motivated. The little girl with the shy smile was born one month shy of the first anniversary of the wreck that could have killed her mother.
"Everything worked perfect," she said. "She was born May 17, 2012 and she's my little miracle."
Talia is a miracle child for the officer who miraculously survived a stunning accident. She has become a source of light for Teresa in her darkest hours, when the loss of her dream, the changes in her life and the stress of a lingering court case, set in.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to put it behind me completely, but I would like to move
forward in my life and I want the case to be over. I would love for it to be over so I can start to move forward," Rigby said.
According to Rigby’s attorney, Baltimore-based Mitch Gordon, the civil case against Vanderford and the man who owned the car he was driving continues with a trial that begins Monday. Rigby is expected to testify as the case, which centers on whether an umbrella policy maintained by the car’s owner should apply.
Teresa says she’s tried not to think about that part of her story, putting her focus instead on her family. She’s gotten married since the crash. And has begun a new chapter – creating those “Survivor” hats she wants to hand out to those who survive trauma, including her fellow police officers. It may very well be the first step in her new career, as a motivational speaker.