The hardest parts of each day, Heidi Solis says, are waking up, going to sleep and most of the moments in between.
The 33-year-old Stuart woman suffered unimaginable loss April 30 when a rear tire on the passenger van she was driving came apart on Interstate 95 near Indiantown Road in Jupiter, causing her to lose control. The van smashed into the center median before bouncing off and traveling back onto the highway where it was T-boned by another vehicle.
The resulting carnage was horrific: four of Solis’ five children — ages 5, 7, 14 and 17 — died either at the scene or shortly thereafter at local hospitals. Two adults in the van, longtime friends of Solis, were also killed, making it one of Palm Beach County’s deadliest traffic crashes in recent memory.
Solis and her 11-year-daughter Deisy sustained serious injuries but, at least physically, survived the wreck.
“Why my children and why me?” Solis said she asks herself. “I never robbed or killed or hurt anybody. What did I do to deserve this? What did my children do to deserve this?”
Solis was taken to Delray Medical Center, where she was unconscious for three days after the crash. She awoke to find a room full of people, including family and troopers from the Florida Highway Patrol.
“Where are my children?” Solis asked.
Family members fell silent, leaving it to one of the troopers to break the news.
Through tears, the trooper informed Solis that Deisy was at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.
“And the rest of them?” Solis said.
“I’m sorry,” the trooper said. “There’s only one left.”
Solis remembers responding by ripping an IV out of her arm and becoming hysterical, “screaming and crying for a very long time.” Solis recalled being in the crash but thought she was the only one hurt.
“Not once did I think Deisy is all I had left,” Solis said.
‘Classic mother hen’
A native of Mexico, Solis said she raised her five kids primarily as a single mother after moving to the U.S. and separating from her children’s father.
Money was often scarce, but love was not.
Solis tried to make ends meet by working at her brother-in-law’s flooring business and selling food and clothing to neighbors and acquaintances.
No matter the job, Solis never failed to be there when her kids arrived from school, prodding them to do their homework and keep their grades up.
Weekends were spent together at the beach or the park, and most nights ended with the five kids on Solis’ bed, talking and laughing until they fell asleep and forcing their mom to find a spot elsewhere in the family’s trailer to sleep.
“She was the classic mother hen,” Crisanta Perez, Solis’ mother, said. “If you saw Heidi, you saw her kids trailing behind her like little chicks. She wouldn’t go anywhere without her kids.”
That included the evening of April 30 when Solis packed her children and two friends — Andres Perez, 25, and Renaldo Diaz, 23 — into a 2001 Mercury Villager to visit her sister in Pompano Beach.
While driving southbound just north of the Indiantown Road exit on I-95, a right rear tire “suffered a catastrophic tread separation,” causing the vehicle to veer out of control, according to an FHP report.
Solis said she felt the tire give way and heard a gasp from inside her vehicle.
“I said, ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s just a flat tire,’ ” Solis said.
In a split second, the van was out of control. Solis said she doesn’t remember anything after the vehicle struck the concrete median wall. The FHP report states that a 2012 Kia Sorrento collided with the van as the disabled vehicle crossed into the highway’s inside lanes.
Sharwen Pierre Louis, a resident of Fort Pierce and driver of the Kia, said she saw a woman rushing up to the mangled van, then back away screaming, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
Four children gone
Solis still doesn’t know the exact details of the crash and said she doesn’t want to know, preferring to remember her children as they were in life.
Sandy, 17, was a junior at Martin County High School, who cried when she received grades below 90 percent, Solis said. Realizing that the cost of college was likely prohibitive, Sandy promised her mother that she would get a job after graduating high school and attend college at night.
Macareo, 14, was the eldest son and doted on his mother. He had recently asked permission to work on Saturdays and Sundays to help out financially and often demanded that his mom go out dancing or to the movies on the weekend so that she could have a little fun.
Alexander, 7, was a first-grader and the jealous type, instructing his mother that she didn’t need a boyfriend because he would buy her a house and car when he got older.
Marillany, 5, was in kindergarten and was best known for constantly losing her shoes, a habit that did not keep her siblings from continually fussing over their baby sister.
Telling Deisy, now 12, that her brothers and sisters were killed in the crash was “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Solis said.
Deisy, a sixth-grader at Pinewood Elementary School in Stuart, sustained serious injuries to her left arm and collarbone that required surgery. It wasn’t until three weeks after the crash and following repeated questions from Deisy, who wondered why her siblings weren’t visiting, that Solis found the courage to tell her daughter that she was now an only child.
“I wasn’t prepared to do it,” Solis said. “But who else to tell your child something like that other than her mother?”
A sweet-faced child who says little but smiles often, Deisy is doing well in school after previously struggling.
“The accident didn’t throw her,” Solis said. “It gave her motivation to get ahead.”
An FHP report on the crash indicates that Deisy was the only child among the siblings belted to her seat inside the van.
Solis was cited by FHP for the violation, although she does not face any criminal action. Solis said it was her children’s habit to cross themselves and then buckle their seats whenever they got into a vehicle. She drove the night of the crash under the assumption her kids were strapped in.
“If the authorities came to me today and said I’m under arrest because my children weren’t wearing their seat belts, I wouldn’t be afraid,” Solis said. “I’ve already lost nearly everything.”
‘I am not alone’
Solis is a deeply religious person who says her faith in God and the support of her church has helped her navigate through a blizzard of grief. She discounts help from mental-health professionals, saying that not even “the best psychologist in the world, no matter their credentials or a million diplomas, could possibly understand what I’ve gone through.”
A GoFundMe account set up online after the crash raised more than $41,000 from 770 donors, most of them unknown to Solis but moved to help by her tragedy.
“When I’m sad and the heartbreak has me on my knees, I think of all the help and prayers people have provided and it makes me realize I am not alone,” Solis said.
Those donations, as generous as they were, quickly evaporated through the cost of four funerals and burial plots. Three herniated disks, which require surgery, keep Solis from working in her brother-in-law’s flooring business, and she and Deisy are now living with Solis’ mother.
Solis said she believes God left her with one child “so that I have something to live for.”
After giving birth to Marillany, her youngest, Solis underwent a tubal ligation procedure. She recently was told by a doctor that her tubal ligation could be reversed by surgery.
Solis has been in a relationship for about three months, but said her focus is on Deisy and that she has no immediate plans to have surgery.
“I’d like to have another child if that’s meant to be,” Solis said. “If it doesn’t happen, that’s okay, too. I had five wonderful children.”