NORWOOD PARK — Sliding out of control on an Indiana expressway, Nancy Heffernan seemed certain she would die.
The Norwood Park entertainer, who performs under the stage name Nancy Hays, was driving alone the night of Jan. 9 when her red Honda Odyssey skidded on ice, flipped over 2-1/2 times, launched over an embankment and landed on its side.
"I knew I was probably going to die, like when a person is in an airplane that's about to crash," Heffernan said.
Yet Heffernan escaped the accident unscathed, save a minor cut on her left hand. She credits her faith, a bit of luck, and a trio of United Parcel Service drivers who happened to be the first responders to the crash — who she said will be her friends for the rest of her life.
"For whatever reason, I was given a second chance," Heffernan said.
'I Will Die If I Go Back That Way'
It was Heffernan's extreme dedication to her career that led her to drive alone on an icy expressway on a night on which nobody should have been out.
Heffernan, a singer and dancer, has opened for such icons as Danny Thomas and George Burns and consistently performs in Europe. In 1993, she founded Nancy Hays Entertainment Inc., a company that books celebrity engagements for stars like vocalists Sarah McLachlan and John Legend. She has passed her love for entertainment to her four children, Mary, Matt, Ed and Caroline, all accomplished singers and actors.
On Jan. 6, when temperatures sunk to minus-15 degrees, Heffernan drove from Chicago to Louisville, where she was meeting a business client, before a subsequent trip to Nashville, where she had been hired to speak at an entertainment conference. But Interstate 65, a main thoroughfare from Northwest Indiana to Louisville, was shut down, so Heffernan backtracked into Illinois and then took two-lane highways to reach her destination.
"I literally almost died getting there," Heffernan said. "But everything was perfectly planned, and I don't let people down when I'm speaking."
On Jan. 9, before leaving Nashville for Chicago, she emailed her husband, Sean, the General Cousel for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart: "I am dreading the drive back ... I can not survive another drive through Indiana like the one I made down here." Sean told her that I-65 had been cleared for travel, welcoming news.
But four hours into her trip, at 9:23 p.m. and just south of Indianapolis, Heffernan said the four-lane interstate became "like a skating rink." Her van started to slide. Heffernan tried pumping the brakes, which only caused more sliding.
Heffernan, who was driving in the far left lane, said she looked to her right and saw other vehicles. She thought she'd "kill" people in the right three lanes if she continued to slide, so she very quickly swerved to the left, which flipped her van over the guard rail and onto the southbound side of the highway.
The official report filed by Indiana State Trooper Luis Deffit said snow near the median "must have functioned as a ramp, which caused her vehicle to lift from the ground when she side-swiped it."
"I felt being up in the air, like on a ride, not a fun ride," said Heffernan, her eyes turning red and her voice breaking. "Flipping over, I was waiting to hear the crash, and I felt that I would be dead in a matter of seconds. It was the scariest, most unreal feeling."
Jim Spears, a UPS driver for 27 years, was on his way back to the company's Indianapolis distribution center as he entered an on-ramp onto I-65. As he approached the highway, he viewed Heffernan's accident in horror.
"The way the van flipped and how many times it flipped, it looked very devastating from where I was at," Spears said. "I have never seen an accident like this happen except at a race track. It reminded you of a NASCAR accident the way she flipped."
Trailing Spears in a separate UPS truck was his coworker and friend Daniel Letourneau, who had worked with Spears earlier in the day. Spears had recently dropped Letourneau back at his UPS van, and, like Spears, Letourneau was heading back to the distribution center. When Letourneau, who did not witness the crash, saw Spears pull over, he did the same.
Spears told Letourneau what had happened, and the pair ran across four icy highway lanes and hopped the median to reach Heffernan, who was screaming "I am alive! I am alive!" The van smelled strongly of gas fumes, and Heffernan said she couldn't breathe. Spears and Letourneau were about to smash open the windshield but instead were able to get Heffernan out the driver's side window.
The only injury she sustained was a cut on her left hand from a broken window as she exited the vehicle.
"She was white as a ghost," Letourneau said. "Her eyes were bugged out. After seeing the car, you shouldn't be able to survive something like that. It was amazing there was someone even in there."
Said Heffernan: "I was out of my mind at that point. I probably looked like an animal."
By this time, a third UPS driver, Dwayne Davidson, had stopped because he thought there was something wrong with his fellow employees' trucks. Then he heard voices from across the highway and glimpsed Spears and Letourneau with Heffernan as they were walking her back across the highway.
"It looked like they were bringing a soldier off the battlefield," Davidson said. "That moment will forever stick in my mind."
'I Couldn't Believe She Was Alive'
The trio helped place Heffernan into Spears' truck and tried talking to her. Just before police and emergency personnel arrived, Heffernan was able to tell them that "she felt like she was dying," Davidson said.
Spears called Sean Heffernan and told him his wife was OK and that she was heading to St. Francis Hospital on the south side of Indianapolis.
At the hospital, Heffernan received a tetanus shot and was released after just 30 minutes. Waiting to pick her up was Briget Chamness, the wife of Heffernan's longtime client Chuck Chamness, the CEO of National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.
Several years ago, Matt Heffernan had appeared in a MasterCard commercial featuring then-Colts quarterback Peyton Manning that was filmed near the Chamnesses' home. Matt suggested that Sean call the Chamnesses so Nancy would have a place to spend the night.
"I couldn't believe she was alive, let alone walking out of the hospital," Briget Chamness said.
After taking Heffernan to her house, Chamness, an accomplished attorney with a busy schedule, cooked her a hearty dinner of pea soup, tuna salad and hot tea. As Heffernan showered, Chamness washed the blood out of her clothes. Chamness also moved her daughter from her bedroom so Heffernan could sleep there.
The next day, after making Heffernan a breakfast of eggs, toast and juice, Chamness drove her to Hix Wrecker Service Inc. so she could remove personal belongings from the destroyed van.
"The car still reeked of gas," Chamness said. "I can't believe it didn't blow up. There's no way, when you look at that car, that no one was significantly hurt. It's a tribute to airbags and seatbelts and luck."
While Heffernan grabbed her items, she said a Hix Wrecker employee told her she was the luckiest person he had ever seen come to the lot and that she should buy a lottery ticket.
In Her Father's Honor
Heffernan doesn't know why she survived the accident. She thought she was going to die three times: when she crashed; then possibly from the potential impact of an oncoming vehicle in the southbound lanes; or by suffocating from the awful gas fumes.
In the few weeks since, Heffernan said she has learned a great deal, most importantly that "the goodness of people in this world is so great, and that there are truly great people out there who we should appreciate."
She also has tried to emulate her hero and late father, Edward Parker Hays, a physician who was always a glass-half-full person despite suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis, which left him disfigured and in horrible pain in his final years.
Heffernan does not worry about "little aggravations" in life anymore. In the past, when driving Caroline to one of her many play or musical practices, Heffernan would cut people off to get there on time. "Now it's OK if we're late," she said. "Now I have to slow down."
Heffernan left each of the UPS drivers a heartfelt voicemail and sent them thank you notes. The one to Spears in part reads: "I am forever in your debt and will never forget what you have done for me and for my family."
"The card is at home now, and I'm going to frame it," Spears said. "Every time my wife [Michele] reads it, she cries."
Heffernan cried frequently as she recounted her brush with death.
But she also said that day made her truly appreciate life.
"I have learned to cherish literally every single day and every person I encounter and look for the good in them," she said. "Life is not about fame and how impressive you are. It's about what kind of person you are that you take to the grave. That's your legacy."