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Stage collapse victim makes 'miracle' comeback

Associated Press Modified: November 24, 2012 at 12:15 pm •  Published: November 24, 2012
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PENDLETON, Ind. (AP) — They identified her by her wedding ring and just one boot.

Andrea Voss Vellinga — former Wright State volleyball player and wife of onetime Dayton Bomber defenseman Mike Vellinga — had gone to an outdoor concert at the Indiana State Fair to see Sugarland, the country duo she loved. She had a pass for the Sugar Pit that got her right up next to the stage.

Mike was working at the Carmel Ice Skadium that August evening in 2011 and the couple's young daughter, Lydia, was with Andrea's parents back home in Pendleton, a small, Norman Rockwell-type town some 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

It was while she was on Facebook that Sandi Voss, Andrea's mom, first learned there had been an accident at the concert. She quickly turned on the television and saw the breaking news reports that chilled her: High winds from an approaching storm had collapsed the stage rigging into the crowd. Numerous people were hurt and some were feared dead.

"It was really terrifying trying to grasp what had happened," Sandi told the Dayton Daily News (http://bit.ly/ThcD6F ). "I called Mike and by then he'd heard from Andrea's friends. They'd told him, 'We've gotten back together — but we can't find her.' One of the girls had been holding Andrea's hand when they started running . and then had lost her."

For a brief while, Sandi said she and her husband waited at home for the call that never came:

"I felt if Andrea could talk, she'd be on the phone telling Mike she was OK. More and more I had the feeling something bad had happened, so we put Lydia in the car and headed straight to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. It's a Level I trauma center and we'd heard the most severely injured were being taken there."

There was no record of Andrea's admittance to Methodist, but a friend from Pendleton who was a social worker there said she'd check the Jane Does that had come in.

"When she came back, she said she'd found someone, but the woman was in such bad shape she couldn't recognize her," Sandi said softly. "She asked what Andrea's wedding ring looked like and when we described it, she said, 'They're getting her ready for surgery now.'"

Seven people — including two women standing next to Andrea — would end up dying and 58 others were injured.

Andrea was one of the most seriously hurt. The right side of her skull was crushed, causing a traumatic brain injury.

She had other broken bones — including three vertebrae in her spine — and was comatose and unable to breathe on her own.

"For three weeks it was touch and go," Mike said quietly. "Right off, they told us with these types of injuries she might not survive."

As he and Sandi told the story the other day at the Vellinga home — a brick ranch across the street from a Methodist church and just a couple of blocks from Pendleton's quaint downtown — Andrea sat on the living room couch and listened quietly, but a bit detached.

Her left arm — a black brace strapped to the wrist and hand — lay across her lap. The pink helmet she must wear everywhere had been removed and set on the coffee table in front of her, enabling you to see the damaged right side of her skull which doctors haven't yet been able to fully repair.

When she first saw photos taken of herself without the helmet, Andrea said she reacted negatively: "I was like, 'Oh gross. My head doesn't look right.'. But I knew I had to accept it. That's how I look now. And I think people will understand."

And yet, people also see she has the same radiant beauty — especially when she laughs — that she had before.

"I don't remember anything from the accident or my first weeks in the hospital," she said. "A nurse from Methodist brought me flowers when I was at RHI (Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana) and said, 'These are for my Miracle Girl.' I thought, 'What? Miracle Girl?' I didn't understand.

"She told me my intracranial pressure was so high they didn't know if I was going to make it. . So now it makes sense. It is a miracle I survived considering how badly I was hurt."

And that's where the boot comes in.

Besides the wedding ring, she was identified by the one brown cowboy boot she wore.

"When I was growing up, we had horses," Sandi said. "These boots belonged to my dad — her grandpa — and I've kept them. They're small and when Andrea started going to country concerts, she asked if she could wear them. I said, 'Sure, as long as you take care of them and bring them back.'"

At this concert, Andrea took off one boot and handed it to her friend who was closest to the stage. She wanted her to set it up there so (Sugarland star) Jennifer Nettles would sign it.

When everything came crashing down, the girl holding the boot knew how important it was and hung onto it. Later she showed up at the hospital with it.

"That's how we knew Andrea was wearing just one boot," Sandi said. "So those boots really do have quite a story behind them now."

On this day, you could call it a Thanksgiving story.

Andrea became friends with Mandy Gels of St. Henry, Ohio, when they both played for the Indiana-based Munciana Volleyball Club, one of the nation's elite junior programs.

"When I heard Mandy was going to Wright State, I wanted to go there, too," Andrea said.

She did and she quickly made an impact on and off the court. She was beloved by her teammates because of her all-embracing manner and that's one reason former WSU coach Joylynn Tracy and many of the Raiders players from that team have been at Andrea's side throughout this whole ordeal, especially during the 10 months she spent in various hospitals and rehab facilities in Indiana and Michigan.

And then there's the Canadian-born Vellinga, who Andrea said she first spotted at a Bombers' function at Wallaby's near Wright State: "I thought, 'He is sooo cute.' But then one of the guys said he already had a girlfriend, so it didn't happen. But the feelings were there."

Mike grinned and said it was the same for him: "Yeah, when I laid eyes on her it was like 'Wow! She's beautiful.'"

By Andrea's senior year they were dating. Two years later they married and she traveled the minor league hockey circuit with him across the country. But when Lydia was born five years ago, Andrea wanted more stability, so they moved back to Pendleton.

Three years ago, Mike retired from professional hockey and he was working that night at the Carmel rink when Andrea went to the concert.

"My friend knew I loved Sugarland so she got me tickets for my 30th birthday," Andrea said.

She never would have seen birthday No. 31 — which was last May 19 — were it not for two guardian angels who came out of the crowd when tragedy struck at the fairgrounds.

"They were a young couple who'd bought their tickets at the last minute and were sitting high in the grandstand," Sandi said. "When everything fell up front, they rushed down to help. He's a paramedic and she's a surgeon.

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