Livingston, Ala.— On December 29, 2015, newspapers reported a fatal crash in Tuscaloosa County ejecting the driver due to not wearing a seat belt, claiming the life of a 19-year-old. It’s normal to turn on the television and see car accidents claiming countless victims’ lives. More so, it’s normal to simply forget the reports seen, until the tragedy actually hits home. In this case, the loss of a fun-loving, beautiful and radiant spirit on the University of West Alabama campus is one that the students, faculty and staff have no trouble keeping in their thoughts.
According to her closest friends, family and teachers, Bethany Joyce Harris was selfless, loyal, driven, bubbly, lovable and responsible. These characteristics do not begin to cover the impact that Bethany left behind in her hometown of Empire, Alabama and on the University of West Alabama campus.
Buckling Up for Beth
Bethany’s spirit fills the thoughts and dreams of her classmates, teammates, family and closest friends. At the start of the spring semester, Bethany’s sorority sisters are gathering together and holding a memorial in her honor on Wednesday, January 20, 2016, at 7 p.m. in Lyon Hall Auditorium. However, the memorial of their sister has not been restricted to just this event. All over social media and the UWA campus, the hashtag “#BuckleUpForBeth” can be seen thanks to Bethany’s Phi Mu sisters.
Beaird, Bethany’s “big sister” in Phi Mu is the mastermind behind the hashtag. All sisters in the chapter have come together to spread campus involvement with their campaign.
“I don’t want the ‘spotlight’ that I started it,” Beaird said. “It’s supposed to be about Bethany, not me.”
Beaird shared a few ideas that she has in store for the future. One of which is a scholarship in memory of Bethany to be awarded to future Phi Mu sisters.
“I’m beginning to put the scholarship plan in motion,” said BreAnna Johnson, Phi Mu sister and cheer teammate. “The plan is to have this scholarship continue on so Bethany’s light will never fade.”
While there is still grief in the chapter and on campus, these sorority sisters have found light in this dark time through their mission to spread awareness of seatbelt safety.
The Story Behind The Hashtag
“It’s December 28, 2015, it’s not 29,” said Kaitlynn Beaird, sorority sister, and high school friend.
Looking at news reports published by local stations, the date of Bethany’s accident was listed as December 29, 2015. According to the family and friends of Bethany, the news reports have it all wrong.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Lying in bed, playing a game of Trivia Crack with Bethany seemed typical at the moment. Looking back on it, high school friend, Austin Everett wishes he could hear Bethany’s laugh one last time.
“She actually beat me that night, but she cheated and used Siri so we couldn’t count it,” Everett said. “After she ‘won’ she fell asleep laying on my chest.”
Every night Everett thinks about that moment of Bethany’s blonde hair across his t-shirt and wishes he could travel back in time.
Monday, December 28, 2015
The night of Bethany’s accident, she was traveling home from Meridian, Mississippi. She had been visiting with two friends Lane Weaver and Cade Anderson that night.
“I just remember hugging her and telling her to be careful on the way home,” Anderson said.
On her way home, Bethany called Everett to let him know she was on her way, their phone call ended with Bethany promising to call him back shortly. At 9:16 p.m. Everett hung up the phone and heard Bethany’s voice for the last time.
“About 15 to 20 minutes had passed and I began to worry,” Everett said. “She always calls back. I tried calling and texting her countless times. That’s when I texted Kaitlynn.”
At 11:30 p.m. Everett contacted Beaird to see if she had heard from Bethany. Beaird texted Bethany previously at 9:25 p.m. but had no answer.
“Austin and I decided that if we hadn’t heard from her by the next morning, we would go look,” Beaird said.
That night, Everett began calling all state troopers, hospitals, and police stations between Meridian and Empire to see if anything had been reported.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
As soon as Beaird woke up on Tuesday morning, she picked up the phone to dial Bethany’s mother, Sandra Harris.
“She thought she might have just come to stay with me because we lived five minutes away from each other, and it wasn’t odd of Bethany to do that,” Beaird said.
That’s when Sandra reported Bethany as missing. Beaird, Everett and Mandy Henderson, Everett’s mother went searching for Bethany immediately after the phone call ended. Their first stop was Exit 45, near Union, Alabama.
“Bethany had mentioned to both Cade and Austin that she needed gas and was about to pass exit 45,” Beaird said.
The three of them went to the gas stations in Union, Alabama and searched the surveillance footage with no signs of Bethany. After they left the area, Bethany’s father, Vernon called Henderson to inform them that Bethany’s car had been impounded.
“We headed to Tuscaloosa’s Police Department, praying that she was in jail and nothing was wrong with her,” Everett said, “I know it sounds crazy now to pray for someone to be in jail, but we just wanted her alive.”
On the way to the police department, they spotted a state trooper near exit 68. The three pulled over, wondering if there had been a wreck. Approaching the scene on foot, Everett and Beaird saw parts of Bethany’s white 2007 Scion TC scattered around the scene. They knew there had been a wreck.
“Please just tell me she’s alive,” Beaird said.
“Who are you? I can’t give you any information,” the state trooper said.
“She’s my best friend, just tell me she’s alive,” Beaird said.
“I can’t tell you that,” the trooper said.
The tone in the trooper’s voice let them know that Bethany did not make it. There at exit 68, on the left side of I-20E, Beaird and Everett dropped to their knees, covered in mud, and cried.
Everett, Henderson and Beaird left the scene on their way back to Empire, Alabama followed by the state troopers. Arriving at Empire, they parted ways with the troopers. The two traveled to Dora High School where a prayer meeting for Bethany’s safe return home while the troopers went to speak with the Harris family. Beaird and Everett had to inform those at the school that Bethany did not make it.
“It all just feels like a dream,” said Kylee Koch, Bethany’s roommate, teammate and sorority sister.
It feels like a dream that the UWA community cannot wake up from. The loss of a daughter, friend, teammate, student and sister has left a void on campus and in the hearts of students, faculty and staff.
“I didn’t just lose my best friend, I lost my little sister, my maid of honor, the godmother to my future children, my soul mate, my person,” Beaird said.
This loss has inspired the sisters of Phi Mu to take action in remembering their sister, not only by holding this ceremony but also by doing one thing that often goes unlooked: buckling their seatbelts.
Greetings and a warm welcome to the first Muse article of 2016!
First, I would like to thank Jennifer Belcher for co-writing the “Buckling Up for Beth” section of this article.
To say that I am honored to have written this feature on my precious friend and sorority sister, Bethany would be a complete understatement. With that being said, this piece is emotional—to me and also to my fellow sisters and classmates. This piece was written strictly to focus on Bethany’s legacy she left behind here and how we have chosen to honor that. Also, it was written to show a side of the story that not many had the privilege of experiencing.
I hope you enjoyed my first feature as Editor-in-Chief as much as I enjoyed paying tribute to a beautiful soul that I will keep forever sacred.