Life is full of twists and turns, and nothing can be more heartbreaking when a person committed to saving lives, accidentally takes one.
After working a full 24-hour shift, 20-year old rookie firefighter and paramedic Matt Swatzell was headed back to his home in Dacula, Georgia. Tired and weary, the unthinkable happened. His car disastrously collided with a vehicle carrying a young mother and her 19-month old daughter. According to Matt, “It was literally three or four seconds that it took to nod off and to cross the center line and to meet the other car.”
Firefighters are among the world’s superheroes, the people you expect to perform tremendous feats of boldness and bravery to ensure people’s safety. For them to unfortunately cause the death of others is possibly one of life’s most tragic ironies. Matt remembered the harrowing incident as if it just happened. “I can still see it. I can still smell it. The horrendous noise and the glass breaking.”
The crashed ended up killing 30-year old June Fitzgerald, and sadly, the life of her seven-month-old unborn child. Faith, the young girl who accompanied her mother, was unharmed by the incident.
Matt was devastated. “I’m supposed to be a helper. The EMT and the paramedic and fireman that helps in these tragic situations, and here I am, caused this.”
In the aftermath of the accident, June’s husband, pastor Erik Fitzgerald, rushed to see his daughter. Erik tearfully recalled that moment, “She crawled into my lap and then she just went to sleep. And I was thankful because I didn’t have to pretend that everything was okay.”
In the death of a loved one, most would expect surviving family members to ask that the maximum sentence be given to the perpetrator of the crime. But then again, Erik is not like most people. Realizing that too many lives has been broken because of the unfortunate accident, Erik declined to do so.
He shared, “I remembered somebody said this in a sermon — in moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”
Matt was pardoned for his actions, and his sentence amounted to community service and a fine.
People can simply move on and this could be the end of the story, but as luck, and perhaps faith, would have it, the two men were destined to cross paths again. Erik could have easily sent Matt to prison but his incredible act of kindness eventually lead to a solid friendship.
Two years after the accident, Matt, who was in a grocery to buy a condolence card for Erik, bumped into him in the parking lot. “He was just bawling,” Erik said. “So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words.”
Matt still gets teary eyed when he recalls that unexpected meeting. “That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgave me,” he said. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.”
They actually never spoke to one another during the trial, and yet on that day the two talked for over two hours. They would begin to meet regularly, with Matt forming a bond with Faith, who was now 12, and Erik’s new family. Long talks of forgiveness and the ensuing ties of friendship ultimately gave them the strength to live with the past and move forward.
Though Matt knows that Erik has forgiven him, he continues to live with guilt and is unsure if he has forgiven himself. But the deep friendship between the two families has given him hope. “Just seeing Faith, holding my kids — it puts a smile on my face,” Matt said. “It hurts to see that, but it’s the cards that we were dealt. And now it’s our story together. It reminds me that there’s grace and there’s hope and there’s good.”
Matt and Erik shared their inspiring story of forgiveness and friendship on the Today show.