NEW PALESTINE — Emily Jones remembers very little, if anything, about the earliest years of her life.

There are vague memories of playing with her big sister, of going to church with her family; but for the most part, the images are distant, faded glimpses of a different, distant life — one that changed on New Year’s Eve 2001.

The crash was the kind of tragedy people still talk about — a family’s drive down a country road, the split-second timing that brought a dead tree, laden with snow, crashing down on the hood of their car. Everyone killed, save for Emily, then just 4 years old.

Emily’s entire family — her parents, 10-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister — were gone by the time help arrived.

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But Emily, sitting in the back in her car seat, emerged relatively unhurt — just a small cut on the top of her head, some bumps and bruises.

She still carries a small scar on her neck from the accident, but time has taken nearly every memory of the night her family was killed. At the hospital, doctors and nurses examined her, and relatives came to console her, but mostly the night is a blur.

“I think I might remember the hospital, but the crash itself? I just think God has helped me not to remember it,” Emily said. “You wouldn’t want to remember something as bad as that.”

‘Such a blessing’

On Friday, when Emily graduated from New Palestine High School, she walked across the same stage her mother, Beth Hobbs, did in 1980, though the woman who raised her for four years wasn’t there to see it. But there were no tears of sorrow, Emily said. She knows her father, mother, brother and sister, while gone, will always be a part of her.

Rather than dwell on the family she lost, Emily remains thankful for the life, family, friends and opportunity she now has.

Sitting in the stands, watching her mark that milestone, were the aunt and uncle who raised her, Susan and Jeff Lantz. They are the parents Emily now affectingly calls Mom and Dad.

The couple decided, almost immediately after the crash, to take Emily into their home. In their late 40s at the time, the Lantzes had already raised their two children and were about to have an empty nest.

They became Emily’s parents, and it wasn’t long, Jeff Lantz said, before she began referring them as such; “aunt and uncle” faded to “mom and dad.”

The hardest part was trying to help Emily understand what had happened to her family; the couple relied on their faith to get them through.

They told Emily that God saved her because he had a purpose for her life.

And they believed it.

“She’s been such a blessing to us,” Susan Lantz said, fighting tears.

Facing forward

That trust in a higher power is something that has carried Emily and is now something she passes along to others.

On a recent afternoon, sitting at the table in a tiny children’s chair at New Palestine Bible Church, Emily worked with preschoolers, teaching them Bible lessons.

Emily’s faith reigns paramount in her life. Trusting in God is the lesson her father, Stan Jones, who was the pastor of Buck Creek Baptist Church, taught her before his death.

Despite the tragedy — or perhaps because of it — Emily’s faith has grown, she said. Not only does she teach Bible class to youngsters, she’s also part of the church’s youth group.

Her faith has helped in processing the accident. Emily and her aunt went to counseling when Emily was a child. The sessions mostly consisted of Emily playing with toys, talking and asking questions when she wanted — there is no forcing a child to come to terms with such an event.

The sessions helped Susan Lantz understand what to expect from Emily and how to answer her questions as she grew.

“We finally got to the point where they said she was going to be fine,” she said.

Jeff Lantz said they raised Emily to accept what happened to her, to live her life in a way that honored those she lost.

“I told her everybody has some kind of tragedy in their life, and she could either let it define her or the tough could get going,” he said.

Jeff Lantz, a farmer by trade, passed his love of the land on to Emily. She’s headed to Purdue University to study agriculture business in the fall.

Emily was about 6 years old when she finally understood what happened to her family, her uncle said. The Lantzes learned their turns of phrase — saying her parents were “killed” rather than “died,” for example — helped Emily grasp the meaning behind her parents’ absence.

“It was a really rough time,” he said.

Going on

Emily has been a typical teen, Susan Lantz said — shy but active.

Emily just wrapped up five years of performances with the Hancock County Children’s Choir. She’ll also take part in the queen’s contest at the Hancock County 4-H Fair this summer along with sewing and cooking activities.

Emily struggled a bit with grades through middle school but found her way in high school and graduated with a B-plus average.

English teacher Carly Thompson, Emily’s favorite teacher, said Emily has been an amazing young lady to have in class. Some of Emily’s classmates know her story; she inspires them with her positive outlook, Thompson said.

Emily admits there are times she has poignant moments about the passing of her immediate family. But intertwined with those memories is something else: a sense of belonging — the affection, guidance and comfort of Mom and Dad, Susan and Jeff Lantz.

It makes it hard to imagine what life would have been like had the accident not happened, she said.

“God probably doesn’t let me remember because he wants me to go on,” she said.

If you go

New Palestine High School Graduation Class of 2016

When: Friday, May 27

Where: New Palestine High School gymnasium 

Time: Ceremonies begin promptly at 7 p.m.  

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Kristy Deer is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3262 or kdeer@greenfieldreporter.com.