Firefighter paramedic who killed pregnant woman and unborn child in tragic accident gains forgiveness from widower and the two are now friends
Matt Swatzell and Erik Fitzgerald's friendship is uncommon to say the least — Swatzell killed Fitzgerald's pregnant wife and their unborn child in a car crash on October 2, 2006
A little forgiveness can go a long way. The unlikely friendship between firefighter paramedic Matt Swatzell and pastor Erik Fitzgerald is proof of that. The two strangers were connected by an extremely tragic incident but that didn't get in the way of their bond. Swatzell, now 32 years old, killed Fitzgerald's pregnant wife and their unborn child in a car crash on October 2, 2006.
Swatzell was a rookie firefighter paramedic at the time, all of 20 years old, and was working around the clock with almost no sleep. He finally wrapped things up and was heading home to Dacula, Georgia. Tired from the day's strenuous work, he dozed off for a couple of seconds — and crashed into June Fitzgerald's car. The 30-year-old June was with her 19-month-old daughter Faith inside the car at the time.
"It was literally three or four seconds that it took to nod off and to cross the center line and to meet the other car. I can still see it. I can still smell it. The horrendous noise and the glass breaking," Swatzell told Today. At the time, Swatzell had no idea that she was pregnant. When he went to the hospital, he found that he had killed both the mother and the baby inside her.
A cop is said to have informed him of the news. "He said, 'I don't know if anyone's told you, but June didn't make it'. And then he also told me, 'and, by the way, she was seven months pregnant, and the baby didn't make it either'." The incident left him with extreme guilt. "I’m supposed to be a helper — the EMT and the paramedic and fireman that helps in these tragic situations, and here I caused this," he said.
Fitzgerald, however, took the tragedy a bit differently than one would expect.
In the same hospital, Fitzgerald was dealing with the loss of his wife and his unborn child and he had the greatest challenge coming — to break it to Faith that her mother was gone. "She crawled into my lap and then she just went to sleep," Fitzgerald said, tearing up, "And I was thankful because I didn't have to pretend that everything was okay."
He decided not to seek revenge. He told Today that he recalled a piece of advice he had found in a sermon. "In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there are opportunities to either demonstrate grace or exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace," he said.
And he did just that — he did not push for a maximum sentence against Swatzell. He was ordered by a judge to pay a fine and was allotted community service. All this while, Swatzell's guilt was only building up.
The two men didn't see each other after the hearing and happened to bump into one another at a local grocery store. Swatzell, on seeing Fitzgerald, couldn't hold back his tears and that's when Fitzgerald told him that he had his forgiveness.
"Erik started walking out of the grocery and towards my truck," said Swatzell, very emotional, revealing that he had gone to the store to buy Fitzgerald a condolence card. It was the two year anniversary of the tragic loss. "He was just bawling," Fitzgerald said. "So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words."
The forgiveness meant a lot to Swatzell. "That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgives me. Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely," Swatzell said. They ended up chatting with each other soon after and their unexpected friendship blossomed. Two years after the tragedy, they have finally started to heal.
They met each other regularly after the meeting and have now become very close. They even spend time on holidays together with Faith. "Just seeing Faith, holding my kids — it puts a smile on my face," he said. "It hurts to see that, but it's the cards that we were dealt. And now it's our story together. It reminds me that there's grace and there's hope and there's good," Swatzell said.
"I said, 'Man, I don't know what you're going to say to this, but I just feel like in my spirit that I'm supposed to stay connected to you somehow'," Fitzgerald said. "And he's like, 'Dude, I feel the same way'."
Fitzgerald helped Swatzell deal with his guilt while Swatzell helped him deal with the loss. "Meeting with Erik, it gave me hope. That we’re going to be okay," Swatzell revealed to Today.
In fact, even when Fitzgerald, now 42 years old, moved to Florida, the two kept in constant touch. "He's like a big brother to me. We have a lot of fun together," Swatzell said. "As weird and crazy as it may sound, but we do. It's unique."
Both men do feel like their friendship was meant to be and that tragedy brought them a gift. Their friendship grew even stronger after Fitzgerald remarried and became a father again.
As fate would have it, the baby was born on the same day June was due. "I mean, June's in heaven. And one day, we'll get to all kind of hang out," Fitzgerald said. "God's a big God and I think that's going to be a great day one day."
Although everything is well now, Swatzell still often finds it difficult to let go of what happened. "I can’t say, 'This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.' It doesn't," he said and added: "It’s nasty, it’s real, and it’s something that I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life."