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Family's health, faith grow stronger

Two months after a wreck destroyed their van and sent three of them to the hospital, the Altieris credit God for pulling them through.

[Times photo: Kevin White]
The Altieri family: back row, from left, Tina with Anthony, 3, on her lap; John with Christopher, 2, on his lap; Alyssa, 11, and Maria, 13; front row from left, Gabrielle, Jaclyn, 10, and Joseph, 9. Johnny, 14, is not pictured.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


SPRING HILL -- Tina and John Altieri were on their way to Mass when the accident happened.

In the back of their minivan, seven of their eight kids were chattering about, among other things, the two soccer tournaments they were returning from that Sunday in March.

When the din became too much, Altieri turned to shout them down. In an instant, he lost control of the wheel.

Seconds later, the van slammed into a guard rail, flew in the air, then rolled, landing on its side in the median of the Suncoast Parkway.

What happened next, the family believes, is a miracle.

Out of nine people in the van, including 7-year-old Gabrielle, who was thrown from the wreck, and 3-year-old Anthony, who was pinned underneath, only Mrs. Altieri suffered lasting injuries after being pulled from the wreckage.

Her pelvis broken in four places, vertebrae crushed and her shoulder fractured, she gathered her children on the side of the road after her husband passed the smaller ones out through the shattered windshield.

As witnesses collected what they could of the family's belongings, rescue workers airlifted Mrs. Altieri, 40, and two children to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and took the rest of the family to Oak Hill Hospital, where they were treated and released. Four of the children needed stitches, including 13-year-old Maria, who got nearly 50. The rest had bumps and bruises.

Two months later, as his wife prepares to begin a month of daily therapy sessions to help her walk comfortably again, Altieri, 45, remains thankful.

"We never say, "Why me?' " he said last week. "It's like, why not us?"

In January, a co-worker gave Mr. Altieri a laminated card carrying the prayer of St. Joseph. For nine mornings, he went to church and repeated the prayer on his knees. The card said, "Whoever shall read this prayer or hear it or keep it about themselves, shall never die a sudden death or be drowned nor shall poison take effect on them neither shall they fall into the hands of the enemy or shall be burned in any fire or shall be overpowered in battle." The couple believes the prayer helped save the family's lives.

In the living room of their four-bedroom home on Holston Avenue, the Altieris keep a makeshift altar. It grew after the crash when a woman whose name they don't know loaned them a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. The couple worshiped there when Mrs. Altieri returned from two weeks in the hospital, then another week in a nursing home.

They say their faith has grown stronger in the aftermath of the crash.

An outpouring of help came from their congregation at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and from St. Theresa Catholic Church. Friends helped Altieri cook and care for the children and donations poured in from West Hernando Middle School and Chocachatti Elementary School, which five of their school-age children attend. Saturday, a crew of volunteers showed up to help clean the family's home.

"It was just overwhelming how everyone came together," Mrs. Altieri said. "They've come from every different direction."

Altieri, who works for Continental Airlines, has not worked since the March 4 crash. Taking care of the house and kids, who range in age from 2 to 14, has proved a full-time job.

"He's doing everything I used to do," said his wife. "He's Mr. Mom."

A big part of Altieri's day is spent cooking, doing laundry and driving to soccer practices, school events and dance lessons.

Sundays present the biggest travel headache, with 5:30 p.m. Mass.

Because the family's 15-passenger minivan was totaled in the crash, Altieri has to ferry them to the church in two trips. First, he straps Christopher, 2, and Anthony in car seats and drops them off at the nursery, where they wait with two older sisters, usually Maria and 11-year-old Alyssa. Then he goes back to the house for his wife, 14-year-old Johnny, 10-year-old Jaclyn, Gabrielle, and 9-year-old Joseph.

The Altieris bought the used van in 1999 so they could go places together. In January, the couple bought two more used cars, a 1993 Ford and a 1992 Buick, to save money on gas and reduce wear on the van during short trips.

Their insurance settlement covered the $13,000 they owed on the van, it but wasn't enough to buy another one, said Altieri, who plans to return to work in June.

"When we make plans, God laughs," he said.

Mrs. Altieri's recovery could take up to a year, but she crossed a big hurdle last week, when she took her first steps after the crash.

"You just take it one day at a time," she said. "Some days it's so bad you do one hour at a time . . . Prayer has a lot to do with it."

Theresa McIntyre, 41, of Spring Hill, works with John Altieri and is friendly with the family. Her husband coaches Alyssa's soccer team, and the girl was with him after the tournament when the crash happened.

"Fortunately, they're all still with us," McIntyre said. "They definitely have guardian angels. I truly believe that. If you'd seen the van you would think that someone really got hurt."

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