Jacqueline Saburido Garcia, who became the face of campaigns in Texas and beyond against drunken driving after she was severely burned in a wreck near Lake Travis 20 years ago, died Saturday of cancer in Guatemala, according to her family.
AUSTIN, Texas — Jacqueline Saburido Garcia, who became the face of campaigns in Texas and beyond against drunken driving after she was severely burned in a wreck near Lake Travis 20 years ago, died Saturday of cancer in Guatemala, according to her family.
She was 40.
Saburido’s cousin, José Saburido, said she had moved from her native Caracas, Venezuela, to Guatemala City several years ago to gain better access to medical treatment and medicines.
José Saburido said Jacqui also had been undergoing facial reconstruction surgery in Miami, receiving skin grafts to form new eyelids, lips and a nose. More recently, though, she had been devoting her energies to fighting cancer.
In her role as a motivational speaker and anti-drunken driving spokeswoman, Saburido inspired hope among a legion of followers across the globe. Her story of recovery from a fiery wreck on RM 2222 in 1999 was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s television show and in an American-Statesman special section called “Chasing Hope.”
As news of her death spread on social media, people from across Texas and the world paid their respects. A high school teacher in Wichita Falls said she continues to teach Saburido’s story to her students. A Galveston woman said Saburido had inspired her to become a burn nurse. Twitter messages in Italian, French and Portuguese lamented her death.
“She was an example to follow,” José Saburido said Monday from Caracas.
He said arrangements are being made to fly his cousin’s body back to Venezuela. “Her final wish was to be buried next to her mother,” he said. Saburido’s mother, Rosalia Garcia, died in 2006 after battling cancer.
Saburido was a beautiful, 20-year-old woman from a wealthy family, studying English in Austin and taking a break from engineering classes at a university in Caracas, when tragedy struck on the night of Sept. 19, 1999. After a party on Lake Travis, she and three friends caught a ride with a young Russian student back into Austin around 4 a.m.
At the same time, Reggie Stephey, an 18-year-old student at Lake Travis High School, was driving home from another party in Austin. He had been drinking.
On a curve along RM 2222, Stephey’s 1996 GMC Yukon SUV plowed into the car carrying Saburido and her friends. The crash killed the driver, Natalia Chyptchak Bennett, and Laura Guerrero, a 20-year-old University of Texas student from Colombia. Two other passengers were pulled from the wrecked car as it burst into flames.
Saburido, trapped in the front passenger seat, burned for nearly a minute before paramedics could put out the fire. Horrific burns covered nearly her entire body, except for the bottom of her legs and feet. She spent months at a Galveston burn unit, undergoing skin grafts and emergency surgeries. One by one her lips, ears and nose fell off. Her eyes were sewn shut so they wouldn’t dry out. The dead bones of her fingers were amputated.
Her father, Amadeo, became her caregiver, shuttling his only child to countless doctor appointments, massaging her scars, brushing her teeth and applying eyedrops in the middle of the night. She eventually underwent more than 120 surgeries.
In June 2001, a jury found Stephey guilty of two counts of intoxication manslaughter and sentenced him to seven years in prison. During the trial, Saburido asked to meet with Stephey; she told Stephey she forgave him. He served every year of his sentence before being released in June 2008. Throughout his prison stint, he collaborated with Saburido on the drunken-driving campaign, filming public service announcements and speaking to high schools.
The story of Saburido’s injuries and her valiant efforts to overcome them and tell her story seized the public imagination. In May 2002, “Chasing Hope,” a 16,000-word special section, detailed Saburido’s story.
The section was reproduced more than 200,000 times and was distributed to high school students throughout the state. Her story became the subject of an anti-drunken driving campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation, featuring videos, posters and a dramatic public service announcement showing Saburido slowly lowering a photograph of her pretty, unburned face to reveal her disfigured countenance.
“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.”
The TV spot, with Saburido’s before and after images, “was a real punch in the gut,” Lea said. “It just went nuts. She got thousands and thousands and thousands of letters and was interviewed by media all over the world.” An educational kit, which included a video and a teacher’s guide, was sent to every middle and high school in Texas.
Bentley Nettles, executive director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, said, “Jacqui did not let the tragic circumstances of her accident diminish her, instead using her life story as a lesson on the importance of preventing drunken driving. We are eternally grateful for Jacqui’s bravery, her compassion and her drive to help others.
Saburido was featured in safety campaigns as far away as Australia, her scarred face persuading a generation of students that drunken driving has consequences.
In 2009, 10 years after the fiery wreck, Saburido made her second appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as the talk show host counted down her most memorable guests of the past 25 years.
Saburido “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.”
For Saburido, appearing a second time on Winfrey’s show was a thrill. “Not everyone can say they were” one of Oprah’s most memorable guests, she said at the time. “It was very cool to be there.”
But in the midst of global acclaim, she continued to struggle with the aftermath of the wreck. In 2009, she reflected on turning 30.
“Emotionally, I haven’t been able to go forward,” she said. “I’d like to be happy with myself, to accept myself how I am and be more independent.”
As for her role in the campaigns against drunken driving, she said, “It’s an honor.” The message “has to be something that people always remember.”