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Published November 30, 2015
HEFLIN, Ala. -- His wife riding beside him with their two children in safety seats in the back, John Fisher drove home toward South Carolina along a stretch of Interstate 20 covered with ruts, bumps and crumbling concrete.
Just ahead of the family, Crystal Marie Dick was heading to the other side of the Georgia line to give a friend a ride.
The pothole in front of her 1995 Toyota Camry had been fixed at least once already, and now the repair was breaking down, too. A pocket of jagged, brittle bits of concrete covered nearly half of the right lane, the slow lane.
Her Camry hit the hole, kicking a chunk into the air as the Fishers' green Ford pickup hurtled forward at 70 mph.
The glass directly in front of Fisher's wife exploded.
No one knows exactly how big the fragment was, but it blew a hole the size of a football through the windshield. It struck Jo Maureen Fisher in the head, sailed between her preschoolers, hit the rear window and shattered it too, flying out of the truck's cab never to be found.
Wounded in the most random of ways, John Fisher's 33-year-old wife died the next day. Today, he is a single dad trying to balance work with child care and all the things she used to do.
Back in Alabama, Dick is trying to go on with life too. It's not easy when you're a young mother and your only transportation is that old blue Camry, the one that still carries awful memories and a busted rear end from hitting a pothole at highway speed.
Dick knows she wasn't at fault -- troopers decided no one was -- yet she still is haunted by the accident.
"People told me, `You're the one who killed that lady?' It hurts," the 23-year-old said. "I wasn't doing anything wrong. I wasn't texting. I wasn't talking on the phone. I wasn't speeding. I wasn't doing anything but driving."
Using federal studies, the Washington-based transportation safety advocacy group TRIP estimates the United States could save 145 lives over a decade for every $100 million spent on a variety of road safety improvements and maintenance.
The cost is high.
So is the price of letting just one pothole turn into a killer.
Jo Maureen Cavanaugh and John Fisher went on their first date in January 2000, the year after she graduated from Elon University in North Carolina. They ate at an Applebee's and were engaged a few months later.
A cousin of hers was getting married in New Orleans last March, so the family packed up their Ford F-150 for the 13-hour drive across five states. The ceremony finished, they headed back toward Goose Creek, S.C., near Charleston.
There are a few different ways to drive from New Orleans to Charleston; the Fishers chose I-20, which crosses Alabama from Mississippi before leading into Georgia and South Carolina.
On the morning of March 15, the family drove eastward out of Birmingham into construction zones that have slowed traffic for years. They crossed Lake Logan Martin, passed the Talladega Superspeedway and went through Oxford, the last city of any size before the Georgia line.
Only a few miles before the interstate smooths out in Georgia, John Fisher came upon a section so riddled with pits and patches that drivers turn up the ra's windshield, directly in front of the passenger seat where his wife was sitting.
Dick realized something terrible had happened and dialed 911.
Jo Maureen Fisher was bleeding. Her 7-month-old daughter Ella was covered with glass from the blown-out windshield and 4-year-old Thomas was asking about his mother, but neither was injured. Amazingly, the concrete missile passed directly between them and out the truck's back window without touching either child.
A trooper arrived, and an ambulance. With no one else to help, Dick said, John Fisher asked her to go to the hospital with him to watch the kids, but troopers wouldn't let her because she had to give a statement. Jo Maureen Fisher was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Birmingham, where she died the next day.
Dick said she and Fisher spoke by phone after Jo Maureen died. He told her about the funeral arrangements for his wife, but Dick didn't have anyone to watch her kids, and she lacked money for the trip to South Carolina.
"He just thanked me for stopping and helping him," she said. "He never blamed me or anything. He's a good, Christian man."
Troopers determined both Fisher and Dick were driving the speed limit, and neither was at fault. The condition of the road contributed to the accident, the official report said.
The federal government doesn't keep statistics on how many accidents and deaths are caused by road maintenance problems, said Derrell Lyles, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. But such accidents are extremely rare in Alabama.
Of 123,740 wrecks that occurred in the state last year, state trooper reports show that only 33 were on roads with ruts, holes or bumps, according to an analysis performed for the AP by the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama. No one died in any of those 33 crashes, and no injuries were ld have all been prevented if they'd have just fixed it."
The state is resurfacing parts of I-20, with a clean, smooth surface now covering stretches of the eastbound lanes from Alabama to Georgia.
Crews are still several miles from reaching the spot where a pothole killed John Fisher's wife.