BAYONNE, NJ - Pam O'Donnell is on a mission to raise awareness of the devastating effects of distracted and impaired driving. It is something that is very often on her mind.
Every morning for the last five years, Pam O’Donnell has walked the bases of the softball field in Stephen Gregg Park where her husband Tim used to coach girls’ softball, remembering him and remembering the tragedy that took his life, and the life of their 5-year old daughter Bridget.
“His field is in the middle, towards the 48th Street side of the park,” she said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t walk those bases.”
Since both Tim and Bridget were cremated after their deaths, the field – and the marker that has been placed there in his honor -- serves as a kind of gravestone where she goes to see him.
“I sit down, and I talk with him,” she said.
A science teacher at County Prep in Jersey City, Tim loved coaching softball, and he made softball part of Pam’s life, too.
“It was the team that he used to propose marriage to me,” she recalled. “They used to have regular practice on Sunday mornings. He asked me to come to practice with him. When I got to the gym, all the girls were lined up, and when they turned around, they each had a letter that spelled out ‘Will you marry me.’”
It is one of the many memories she carries around with her daily, even five years later.
Tim routinely picked his daughter from her half-day Pre-K at Walter F. Robinson Community School in Bayonne to keep him company at a similar program at County Prep High School. After that the two usually returned to Bayonne to pick up Ali, the pair’s older daughter before heading home later.
But this changed on Feb. 22, 2016 when Tim, driving a Chevrolet Malibu and stopped at the Turnpike Extension 14C toll plaza and was hit from behind by a 1998 Mercedes-Benz, driven by Scott Hahn. Hahn was driving distracted and under the influence of drugs. The impact was 10 times the toll plaza speed limit and forced Tim’s car into oncoming traffic. Tim died at the scene; Bridget was pronounced dead a short time later at Jersey City Medical Center.
Pam, then employed at a real estate firm in Rutherford, was at her office when she heard the shocking news.
“I was the one who was supposed to die,” she said, recalling her struggle with cancer that had brought her so close to death that she received Last Rites and had prepared her two daughters for the inevitability of her not being with them as they grew older. Then, miraculously, she recovered – only to have her husband and child perish a few months later.
The death of Tim and Bridget so devastated her, she thought about moving out of Bayonne, but realized that her surviving daughter, Ali, needed the support of the community, and so they remained.
“Bayonne has been extremely supportive, especially Mayor (Jimmy) Davis,” she said.
But it wasn’t enough just to survive the tragedy, Pam decided to make sure other families did not suffer the way she and her daughter did. She became an advocate for efforts to reduce distracted driving, traveling wherever she could to speak out on how to prevent it.
Pam said distracted and impaired driving is a choice, and that people can stop it.
“One death is too many, and there are 40,000 people who die every year because of it,” she said.
Since Tim and Bridget’s deaths Pam established the Catch You Later Foundation, a name synonymous with how her husband would make an exit, never saying “goodbye” but instead “catch you later.” The nonprofit program promotes safe driving and that has programs to prevent aggressive driving and has given scholarships to college bound students as a memorial to Tim and Bridget.
O’Donnell said she has since teamed up with a number of other groups such as the National Safety Council, AAA Northeast, We Save Lives, Families For Safe Streets, Vision Zero, Keep Kids Alive Drive 25, and Road Safety USA to help further this mission.
But the memory of the tragedy never goes away, and this year, she said it has special significance.
“This is a very special anniversary,” Pam O’Donnell told TAPinto Bayonne. “On Feb. 22, my daughter will have been dead longer than she lived.”
This year O’Donnell wanted to do something special to make the tragic anniversary, and she came up with both a local and national effort to keep their memories alive.
With the generous help of Bayonne Community Bank and other donations, O’Donnell was able to get a billboard message posted on the highway where her husband and daughter died. While the billboard isn’t near the tollbooth, it is on the same road and serves the purpose of reminding people they need to pay attention when they drive.
She also launched a “Signs across America” memorial which she said started almost by accident when she posted something on Facebook and got a response from people who wanted to put a lawn sign up memorializing Tim and Bridget in their front lawns. Since then, signs have been requested in all 50 states across the US.
“We usually do a candlelight vigil on the field where my husband used to coach softball,” she said. “But because of COVID, we’re not sure we can. So, we need to do this to make sure we did something special.”