He survived a fatal church van crash. Five days after Christmas his beloved wife died

‘They fell in love with her contagious smile and her joy’

Tim Abbott of Spring Hill suffered serious injuries from the Faith Chapel church van crash that killed three teenagers in August. Now he remembers his wife, Rachel, who died suddenly of brain aneurysm five days after Christmas.
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Tim Abbott of Spring Hill suffered serious injuries from the Faith Chapel church van crash that killed three teenagers in August. Now he remembers his wife, Rachel, who died suddenly of brain aneurysm five days after Christmas.

Timothy Abbott would sometimes wonder why God let him live.

On the way to a weekend canoe trip last August, three teenagers died when their church’s van blew a tire and skidded off the highway into a ravine, flipped over several times and struck a tree. Tim, a sponsor of their youth group at Faith Chapel Assembly of God, suffered horrific injuries.

But within a week, the 40-year-old returned home to Spring Hill in Johnson County, where his wife, Rachel, cared for him as well as their children as Tim started a months-long recovery.

Then on Dec. 30, less than a month shy of her 38th birthday, Rachel died abruptly of a brain aneurysm. Tim thought maybe he had received his answer on why he’d survived.

“If you are a person of faith, it kind of comes together. Where I was probably spared so I could take care of my children,” Tim said. “God has a plan. It may not be my ideal plan. It’s not what I want. But he has a greater plan than us.”

Rachel’s death is not just devastating for her immediate family. It’s another tragedy for a tight-knit congregation that has already suffered profound loss in the past year.

“It’s an exceptional bubble of grief,” said Faith Chapel’s lead pastor, Bob Cave, who has known Tim since he was a young church member growing up on a Stanley dairy farm. He welcomed Rachel into the church after she and Tim started dating.

When the van crashed on Aug. 10, five miles north of Bolivar, Mo., Tim’s ribs, spine and neck cracked, his arm muscles and left retina tore, and his brain swelled from trauma.

Tim Abbott, of Spring Hill, survived a deadly church van crash that killed three teenagers this past August. His injuries were extensive and he has not yet fully recovered. Five days after Christmas, his wife, Rachel, died abruptly of a brain aneurysm. GoFundMe

Rachel had devoted her life to caring for her family — Vivian, who turned 6 on Saturday, 18-month-old Jameson and teenage stepdaughter Brooke. She eagerly left her job as an IT project manager in 2013 to become a full-time homemaker and mother, but was needed even more after the crash.

With the help of her church family, she drove Tim to daily therapy, doctor’s appointments and checkups, all the while helping her daughter start kindergarten, caring for a toddler, running their home and handling their finances as Tim transitioned out of a wheelchair and then a walker.

Together, they handled the setbacks. Tim’s healing was slow. In December doctors diagnosed even more injuries in his shoulder and wrist. He had hoped to return to his job as a landscape architect after the holidays, but doctors think he may not be able to remove a neck brace until February. He still can’t pick up more than 15 pounds, which means he can’t hold his children. He has trouble with short-term memory and recalling words.

Now, with his partner and mother of his children gone, Tim’s friends, family and church have devoted endless hours helping him with child care, food and doctor’s appointments. And they’ve helped spread his story with the hope of raising money to pay Tim’s medical bills, mortgage and other needs while he’s unable to work.

“Tim is one of those guys that is very much not one to ask for help,” said Cave, who started a gofundme for Tim. “He’s one to give help.”

“They fell in love with her joy”

After Rachel’s death, Tim received a card from a woman he had never met. The woman had met Rachel while they were both waiting for their cars to be serviced. They exchanged numbers and had some play dates with their children.

“You don’t know me,” the letter began. Tim couldn’t help but smile. That was so Rachel, making friends wherever she went.

“Everybody said the same thing about her,” Tim said. “They fell in love with her contagious smile and her... joy.”

Their first date was at the old Saddle Ranch Chop House at The Legends: watching the mechanical bull riders, roasting s’mores at the fire pit, playing a competitive game of pool. Tim liked her sense of adventure, how sometimes their relationship felt easy, like two kids playing games. He liked how on a trip to Colorado she wasn’t a strong skier, but she tried anyway. He liked her moral values, how she put others first, her commitment to being healthy and active, her fierce desire to be a mom.

On the night he proposed, Tim set up a scavenger hunt for his bride-to-be. Each clue was a puzzle piece that made a map that led Rachel to important places: the apartment where they first met at a birthday party, Saddle Ranch (she had to ride the bull to get her piece), her sister’s house, where an outfit was waiting for her.

Tim had planned to propose in the tulip garden of Powell Gardens — Rachel’s favorite flower was a yellow tulip. But a freeze prompted a move to the gardens’ chapel. The couple married Sept. 20, 2008, at the outdoor gazebo at The Elms in Excelsior Springs.

Rachel Mallinak married Tim Abbott in 2008. GoFundMe

After meeting Tim, Rachel quickly found her place at Faith Chapel, which has a main location in Overland Park and two additional campuses in Gardner and Louisburg.

“She fell in love with the people here,” Tim said. “We’re kind of a tight-knit family here.”

Both were sponsors for the church youth groups. Tim volunteered on the building committee and joined the men’s ministry; Rachel was involved in vacation bible school and became part of a close group of women operating as a “tribe,” Cave said.

Their lives fell into a happy routine: chores and church, play dates and family gatherings. Fridays were for pizza and movies. Sundays were for Sunday school, church and lunch with family.

On the day of the crash, Tim left his house early. The van stopped at the church’s Louisburg location to pick up more youth members. The van’s 11 teenagers and two chaperones headed out for the float trip in a caravan with other vehicles.

He remembers hearing the tire blow. He remembers the driver, Bradley Bailey, saying he couldn’t hold the van on the road. After that, he’s missing time that others have had to fill in:

How he told the paramedics he could walk up the hill, even after his friends had pulled his unconscious body, suspended upside down in the passenger seat, from the wreck. How he adamantly insisted on attending the funerals of all three teenagers — David Martin, 16, of Olathe; Hannah Foy, 14, of Louisburg; and Samara Bayse, 17, of Stillwell — even though he can’t remember the services.

How for weeks, as he processed memories and thoughts, he’d ask Rachel: Did this really happen, and his wife would help him reconstruct reality.

It was a difficult time, but it also brought them closer. Tim says he developed a deep appreciation of what his wife did daily for their family, now that he could witness it firsthand.

“I knew she had the harder job,” he said. “She loved taking care of the kids. The kids were her life. But she never got a break from her job.”

“Yes, Jesus”

Rachel would have loved this month’s snowstorms.

Since starting the family, she had waited for a deep snow to fall upon the dream home she and Tim built on five acres of what once was a veterinarian’s horse farm. She couldn’t wait to share her favorite snow activities — sledding, snowball fights, snow angels — with the kids.

She would have loved the weekend-long power outage — an excuse to light the antique oil lanterns she and Tim had bought at an auction. She would have loved to have had a reason to start the fireplace, how its warmth would drive her family into the living room. She probably would have suggested an indoor family campout, an excuse to be together all through the night.

She never got to see the snow.

After attending Tim’s family holiday party Dec. 29, Rachel complained of a sinus cold. Her head hurt in the front and back. By the evening she felt foggy, felt some tingling in her hands and got sick.

But Rachel had experienced similar symptoms before — during what doctors identified as an allergic reaction to cold medicine — and medical professionals they consulted suspected Rachel had the same thing. Multiple family members had a stomach bug, and the couple wondered if she had picked up something.

Multiple times she woke up that night “loopy” and not quite coherent, Tim said, though she didn’t want to go to the hospital.

She woke for a final time at 2:30 a.m. Tim gave her water to drink. She gripped the glass but didn’t take a sip, even when Tim brought the glass to her lips.

She wasn’t responding to him.

Rachel, Tim said.

She didn’t respond.

Rachel, Tim said.

She looked off to the left.

Rachel, take a drink, Tim said.

“Yes, Jesus,” Rachel said, finally looking at him. Then, Tim said, she went into paralysis. She started breathing erratically as her pulse slowed.

He called 911, and within eight minutes paramedics arrived and rushed her to the hospital. Doctors looked for brain activity. It took them hours to confirm she’d had a massive brain aneurysm.

Later, Tim couldn’t forget the tone in Rachel’s voice when she uttered her final words.

“She said it in a manner as if she was being told something and she was responding to a command,” Tim said.

There wasn’t enough room in the church for the people who attended Rachel’s celebration of life on Jan. 5. Rachel’s organs, including her heart, went to help six people.

Earlier last year, when Tim lost his father, Tim was ready to help his children make sense of what had happened.

But Tim is still working through how to make sense of this, even if he can now tell his children that his father is “in heaven, and Mommy is with him now.”

“He’s trying to find the good in it,” Cave said, “even though it’s a horrible, horrible thing. He puts a lot of faith and trust in God.”

Sometime before the crash, Tim started training in pole vaulting, which he had competed in at Johnson County Community College and Kansas State University. After the wreck, his friends gently joked that he had been preparing for the wreck, not athletic glory.

Now he replays in his head what Cave called the “great love story” of a “phenomenal couple.” He thinks about Rachel’s legacy and how he can help his children honor their mother. And he wonders if the last months he spent at home with his wife were a different kind of preparation.

“It’s been a blessing to spend every day of the past five months with her,” he said.

Tim says he hasn’t been able to process what’s next. This was supposed to be the year he finished cleaning out the barn, fixed the fences to contain the horses and goats he and Rachel wanted to own.

He thinks of his daughter Vivian, petite and spunky like her mother but strong-willed like her dad. He thinks of Jameson, observant and methodical. Their manners, their love of the outdoors, certain personality traits are all evidence of Rachel’s influence.

“I still want to carry on her legacy,” he said. “We’ll continue that legacy for her.”

Rachel Abbott, 37, of Spring Hill, with her son, Jameson. Gofundme

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.