December 20th was a typical day in Northeast Nebraska. Many Norfolk residents were getting ready for Christmas — putting finishing touches on decorations, buying gifts, preparing foods.
In anticipation of hosting a holiday celebration for her four children and six grandchildren, Denise Jackson/Dutton had spent three days decorating the rental house on 13th Street, which is known to many because it’s the boyhood home of the late Johnny Carson. The house is owned by a company in Georgia that deals in properties with ties to celebrities.
As usual, Jackson/Dutton was caring for three grandchildren while their mother, Amber Vetter, worked that day. Jackson/Dutton and her husband, Jack, also care for an elderly, disabled man who was home at the time. The couple’s 17-year-old son, Ellijha, was in school that day.
“Gabriella was really fussy,” Jackson said of the 4-month-old.
So Jackson/Dutton rocked the baby for a while using a chair situated close to the front door. Then Jackson/Dutton put the baby on the floor, sat next to her and entertained her. In the meantime, 3-year-old Zaine slept on the couch located along the wall at the front of the living room. The family’s pet dog slept on the back of the couch. Five-year-old Paris played nearby.
And then disaster shattered the calm.
An SUV slammed into the front porch of the house.
The impact sent Zaine and the dog flying off the couch and scared Paris, who saw the vehicle careen across two lanes of traffic, crash into the porch and settle in the living room.
“The force was unbelievable,” Jackson/Dutton said. “I thought the fireplace had collapsed. Here the car was right in our living room.”
Jackson/Dutton grabbed the baby and hustled the children and her boarder out of the house. Once there, she handed Gabriella to “a complete stranger” so she could tend to the others, who were shaken but not badly hurt, although Zaine had glass in his hair, Jackson said.
The family’s dog was nowhere to be found.
Drivers on 13th Street gawked at the unusual sight. A few stopped to help, Jackson said. Emergency personnel arrived and tended to 76-year-old Robert Peterson, the driver of the SUV, who was eventually transported to Faith Regional Health Services.
The Yankton, S.D., man, who was delivering the vehicle to a dealership in South Dakota, did not sustain major injuries.
While emergency personnel extracted Peterson, one of the children’s uncles picked them up and took them away from the confusion. A friend came to comfort Jackson.
Once the car was removed, Jackson was allowed to go in and gather some clothing in preparation for being relocated. That’s when she got the first look at her home and belongings.
The vehicle knocked off the porch, crashed through the front door, ripped off woodwork and plaster, shattered windows and mirrors and toppled bookshelves, desks and other furniture.
It destroyed the Christmas tree and most of the gifts spread out below as well as many of the holiday decorations Jackson had just put up. Glass covered the playpen where the baby could have been sleeping and the computer desk where Jackson often worked.
The rocker where Jackson/Dutton had been sitting was knocked about. Antiques and family heirlooms lay mangled and torn. More glass as well as dirt and plaster littered the floor. Upstairs walls were cracked.
It was a mess.
“I looked around and couldn’t believe what I saw,” Jackson said. “It was like someone took a baseball bat to my belongings.”
Jackson/Dutton and her family spent the first night with friends living across the street — mostly so they could keep an eye on the house and her belongings, she said.
Then they moved to a hotel for a few nights and on Dec. 23, a moving company packed her belongings and moved them into another rental house in Woodland Park.
There she and her family celebrated Christmas Eve, surrounded by boxes, eating pizza. They spent Christmas day unpacking.
It was a far cry from the Christmas celebration Jackson anticipated.
“Christmas is a big thing for me. To not have it just broke my heart,” she said.
To complicate matters, Jackson/Dutton had to come up with money to pay the deposit on the new rental home and deposits on the utilities. All at a time when their budget was stretched due to Christmas, she said.
So far, Jackson/Dutton has received no financial assistance, she said, although people have helped in other ways. A local organization paid for their hotel rooms and a local restaurant provided space for the family to have Christmas breakfast.
After just a month, Jackson/Dutton has turned the house in Woodland Park into a home. Books and knick-knacks line the bookshelves, plants sit in the sun and antique furniture mixes with contemporary touches.
Jackson/Dutton understands that the “Carson house” as it is called by most Norfolkans is going to be repaired and she may be moving back sometime this spring.
That causes mixed emotions as she likes the house, she said, but she worries about Paris who is still traumatized by the incident. In fact, the little girl often remarks that the Woodland Park house is “safe,” as opposed to the one on 13th Street.
Jackson/Dutton is also haunted by the “what ifs.” What if she hadn’t moved out of the rocking chair right before the impact? What if Paris had been closer to the door? What if Zaine had gone flying out of the window?
Still, the family is recovering. And so is the dog who showed up unharmed shortly after the accident. Jackson/Dutton said she thinks it was knocked through the front window when it was broken.
The experience has caused Jackson/Dutton to reflect on her life. From now on, she said, she’s going to make an effort to help others who experience such a tragedy — both financially and emotionally.
“I never knew what it was like to be homeless instantly,” she said. “I want to let people know they can get through anything.”