Jacqueline Saburido's story inspired more than a billion people following a tragic 1999 drunk-driving accident

Saburido died at the age of 40 this past week following a battle with cancer, but her story of resilience and forgiveness and her campaign against drunk-driving will never be forgotten

                            Jacqueline Saburido's story inspired more than a billion people following a tragic 1999 drunk-driving accident
(Source : Getty Images)

Jacqueline Saburido, the woman who suffered horrific burns all over her body after her car was hit by a drunk driver and whose disfigured face became the face of anti-drunk driving campaigns in the years after, has died. She was just 40 when she died this past week.

According to numerous news reports, Saburido passed away in Guatemala, where she had moved from her native Caracas in search of better treatment for her condition, following a battle with cancer. She will be buried in Caracas, confirmed her family.

Saburido's story is one of incredible resilience and bravery, and will undoubtedly serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of drinking and driving for decades to come, especially because of its undeniably graphic nature.

She was just 20 years old when, on September 19, 1999, her life changed forever. Having attended a birthday party near Austin, Texas, she decided to accept a ride home from a classmate. But a short while into the drive, their car was slammed into by a large pickup truck driven by 18-year-old high school student Reginald Stephey, who had been drinking beforehand.

The driver and one passenger were immediately killed, while Saburido and three others survived. However, among the three survivors, Saburido was the only one who was still trapped in the car when it caught fire. She was unable to escape the flames and paramedics passing by who had partially extinguished the fire were unable to pull her out because of lack of equipment. 

Saburido was finally pulled out more than 45 seconds later when a fire truck successfully extinguished the entire fire. She was airlifted to a burn unit in Galveston suffering second-degree and third-degree burns to more than 60 percent of her body. While she surpassed doctors' expectations and survived, she lost her hair, ears, nose, lips, left eyelid, and much of her vision, and had to undergo more than 120 reconstructive operations.

Anyone who suffered the extent of her injuries could be forgiven for holding a grudge against life and letting their heads bow down, but Saburido did not allow the tragedy to turn her bitter. Instead, she decided she would spend the rest of her life raising awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving.

However, the first step in this journey to redemption was, incredibly, forgiveness. Saburido met Stephey for the first time close to two years after the accident, in June 2001, when he was sentenced to seven years in prison for two counts of intoxicated manslaughter. 

She told him she forgave him, something that Stephey couldn't quite believe himself. He later stated, "What sticks out in my mind is, 'Reggie, I don't hate you'. It's really touching someone can look you in the eyes and have that much compassion after all that I have caused."

Saburido subsequently went on to allow graphic post-accident photographs of herself to be used in the media in posters and television commercials to raise awareness about the destructiveness of drunken driving.

She would also go on to become the face of an ad campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation called 'The Faces of Drunk Driving' which featured videos and photos of her shown in schools. Its impact cannot be understated, nor can her undying positivity.

"I thought she was the bravest, most courageous person I have ever met,” said Janet Lea, former senior vice president of the Sherry Matthews Group, which organized the campaign for TxDOT.  "With all of her injuries, she was still wickedly funny and also willing to speak to anybody who would listen to her about the dangers of drinking and driving."

Lea wasn't the only one with such high praise for Saburido either. Oprah Winfrey could not stop gushing about her after she made appearances on her show in 2003, and then again in 2009. "She helped shift our thinking about what it really means to be beautiful," Winfrey said. "It's so easy for people to talk about inner beauty; it's another thing to live it."

The Austin-American Statesman reported that her story is still prevalent in all corners of the country. A Wichita Falls teacher said she still teaches her students about Saburido while a Galveston woman said the 40-year-old had inspired her to become a burn nurse.

But what is possibly the biggest testament to her work is the change in Stephey. He served every year of his sentence before being released in June 2008, and throughout his prison stint, he collaborated with Saburido on the drunk-driving campaigns, filming public-service announcements and speaking to high schools. 

Her influence is in no way confined to just the borders of the US either. A brief look at social media will tell you that people from all over the world have recognized her efforts to raise awareness about drunk driving, with Twitter messages in Italian, French, and Portuguese lamenting her death.

The outpouring of grief from across the world isn't too surprising considering that the 'Faces of Drunk Driving' campaign estimated Saburido's story had touched at least one billion people worldwide at the time of her death. Her efforts through the years mean there's little doubt it'll touch one billion more.