Krystin Olson knows she owes her life today to others — many, many others.
It was 25 years ago this summer that she nearly burned to death after a driver speeding up Beach Boulevard collided into her car, causing it to burst into flames. If it weren’t for the actions of police officers and firefighters that night, who pulled her from the inferno, she surely would have died.
As the anniversary of that fateful night neared this past June 14, it dawned on Olson she had neglected something important.
“I never thanked the community,” she said.
So she wrote a letter and included a bunch of home-baked cookies and a photo of her and her children and set off to thank the Huntington Beach Police officers and others who worked to save her life that night.
One of those officers still working is Lt. Mitch O’Brien, who is now the department’s public information officer.
After she brought the letter and cookies, O’Brien and Olson caught up at the police department. She pointed to a photo of her and her three children.
“If you guys didn’t do what you did that night, this wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “Truly in my heart I believe I am really lucky because you guys were so young too. Instead of thinking first of your safety you thought of mine. That would be scary going into a burning car. I know a couple guys got a little bit burned.”
O’Brien said he’ll never forget that night.
“Everybody involved in that night, it’s embedded in their brains forever,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of things, and I have even been involved in a fatal shooting and nothing was as troubling as this.”
The horrible crash
That night, Olson was driving her friends home. It was about 3 a.m. and they had gone to see a band and later caught a bite to eat at Denny’s. She was heading home to her mom’s house in Old World, so she made a left onto Beach Boulevard from Slater.
She remembers very little about the accident. She recalls seeing the police officers, who were waiting at Beach and Slater for the driver – a mentally troubled young man who had stolen his parents’ car from their Newport Beach home and had led police on a pursuit. The next thing she remembers is lying naked on the cement and screaming for a blanket.
O’Brien recalls seeing her car being hit, spinning and objects flying out of the car.
“When I ran up, she was unconscious, there was no movement and the car was burning and I thought ‘this person just got killed,’” he said.
He tried putting the fire out with a fire extinguisher but that didn’t do any good. Then she woke up and started screaming and moved to the passenger seat. O’Brien broke the window with a fire extinguisher and with the help of other officers pulled her out of the car.
Another officer got a bucket of water from a local family and threw water on her.
“I felt like you were throwing water on me over and over and over,” she said. “I remember spitting up water.”
As for the driver, O’Brien chased him with his partner Officer Phil Sanine and another officer Steve Schnars. A K9 officer eventually tracked the driver down.
O’Brien said as he fought with the driver to take him into custody, he told him, “You just killed that person.”
These photos were taken at the crash scene more than 25 years ago.
The long recovery begins
In the beginning, Olson said it was really hard.
“I remember a doctor coming in probably a good month into my care,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was night or day and I remember asking, ‘am I going to live?’ He said ‘that’s up to you. You have to have the will to live.’”
She asked him if she still had a face and if she could she have kids. He said yes.
“I took a deep breath and I said, ‘all right I will fight,’” she said.
When she got out of the hospital, she bought a car and went back to coaching a dance team, just to get some normality in her life. She did pretty well until she attempted to return to college at Golden West.
Because she had to wear a full body suit to school, she was mocked and teased. She sunk back into a depression.
Then one day, her roommate Kimberly found her crying in her room. She didn’t know if she wanted to live.
“She said ‘who are you and what are you saying?’” Olson said. “There are kids 10 years old dying from cancer. There are kids who have had their faces burned off and they have no eyes and no fingers. How dare you feel sorry for yourself? You’ve been given this life. You’re beautiful. Get off the floor and live your life.”
It was that jolt from her friend that she credits for setting her on her current path.
“From that moment forward I really tried to let go of that and make a choice to make my life the best it can be,” she said.
“I was given a chance to have these three beautiful kids,” she said of her children, Robby, Kaura and Austin. “I tried to give back as much as I could.”
Olson and Lt. O’Brien recently reunited at the police department
A lifelong friendship starts
Right after the accident, O’Brien went to the burn center to visit her. The staff told her that Krystin wanted to talk to him. She wanted to know what happened. They developed a friendship.
At the time, she was 20 and he was 25. He took her to church once and she even came to watch him play hockey. He got to know all her friends and family. They recently caught up again about five years ago.
O’Brien said the other officers on the scene that night besides him, Sanine and Schnars included Darryl Kimmis, Sonya Yanez and Ed Deuel. All are now retired.
“I really feel like angels have touched my life over and over and over,” she said. “They are just reminders of how lucky I am, how far I’ve come and how you just can’t things for granted.”
In fact, just a year ago she was driving in her car and got a phone call from a mom she had been trying to get ahold of all day. She didn’t want to miss the call so she picked up the phone.
Minutes later, she was being pulled over. The officer making the stop was Sanine, who had helped save her life 25 years ago.
“I felt silly and I told him once again you could have saved my life,” she said.
The driver’s fate
Olson said the driver of the car, who was mentally ill, was put in an institution for several years. Her father, who is an attorney, attended all of his parole hearings for about 15 years, asking that he not be released.
She never knew her father went to those hearings and she recalls that at one point the family of the driver wanted to visit her in the hospital but her parents said no. She said she doesn’t really harbor any ill will.
“I don’t think I ever had any real anger toward him,” she said. “I kept putting myself back into his parents’ situation. How hard it would be to raise a child who was in that condition.”
Her thank you
Olson and her family
Now with all of her kids graduated from high school, Olson has time to focus on other things. She wrote the letter to express gratitude. She plans to bring the letter and cookies to six different places that had a role in her rescue or recovery.
“I just want you all to you know what you do is important, not only do you protect our community and go after bad guys, most importantly you save lives,” she said.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org