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Gilda Tafolla holds a photo of her son, Anthony.

‘Lives will be changed’
Teacher speaks out about dangers of distracted driving
By GRAHAM WILLIAMS
Gilda Tafolla has a special reason for wanting to discourage people from using their cell phones while driving - two years ago, her son was killed in an accident involving a distracted driver.
Twelve-year-old Omar Anthony Tafolla was riding home on his bicycle when a car struck him from behind. The impact tossed Anthony's body some 60 yards. One tire from his crumpled bicycle wound up in a nearby ditch; another came to rest in the Tafollas' yard.
“My husband heard the crash,” she said.
The Tafollas ran out of the house and saw their son's body lying on the ground.
“There was blood everywhere,” Tafolla said.
Her husband felt for a pulse - it was faint.
“I screamed out 'God, take me! Let him live!'” she said.
It seemed as if emergency responders would never get there, Tafolla said. When they finally arrived, an EMT told her “He's gone; I can't do anything.”
She was later told that Anthony had died instantly.
Tafolla teaches Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 at Union County High School. A Texas native, this is her first year at UCHS. She taught in public schools in Texas before moving to South Carolina about 10 years ago. Her first two teaching jobs were at private schools - Spartanburg Day School and the Hammond School in Columbia.
“I felt led to get back into public schools,” she said.
She and her family moved to Cross Hill. Tafolla taught school at Saluda High School and Anthony attended Saluda Elementary School.
On Friday afternoon, May 2, 2012, she picked up her son at school and brought him home.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day,” she said.
Anthony's father took time to throw a football with him before heading inside the house, where he prepared to start the grill for dinner. Anthony rode his bike around the yard before heading across the two-lane highway to visit his father's best friend, Tafolla said.
On his way home, he turned right on the two-lane highway and headed for the upper entrance to the family's circular driveway, she said.
About this time, a 21-year-old woman was driving her car in the same direction Anthony was headed, Tafolla said. The speed limit on the road was 45 mph, but the sign was missing, she said.
“She never saw him,” Tafolla said. “She never knew what she hit. She wasn't watching the road.”
The Highway Patrol did not file charges against the woman, Tafolla said.
“They explained they were not going to issue a ticket because it was no fault of hers,” she said. “She would have been charged with involuntary manslaughter.”
Instead, “they blamed my son, because he was riding his bicycle on the road,” she said.
The Highway Patrol's accident investigation team told the family the woman was driving between 45 and 60 mph at the time of the accident. Later, the family's attorney discovered that the woman had been driving 63 mph, Tafolla said.
The attorney also checked the woman's cell phone records and found out that one second before the accident she had been using her phone, Tafolla said.
 “My son was involved in an accident,” she said. “If she had not been using her phone and had both eyes on the road he would have lived.”
Despite what happened, the family holds no ill will toward the woman, who has never attempted to contact them, Tafolla said.
“We never, ever wanted her to go to jail - we knew it was an accident,” she said. “I just wish they had asked her to talk with others about safe driving.
“I pray for her every day,” she added. “I know it has to be hard for her. She may not think about it every day like we do but I know (the accident) changed her life.”
Tafolla said she doesn't want other people to go through what she and her family experienced.
“He left behind a sister who thought the world of him,” she said. “She was 15 then; she's 18 now. She refused to get her (learner's) permit for a long time. She was so afraid she would make the same mistake that others had made.”
Her daughter refuses to ride with people who have their cell phones out, Tafolla said.
“You always think it's not going to happen to you, but that's not true,” she said. “This happened to us.”
Before the accident, Tafolla said, she would sometimes use her cell phone while driving.
“This is really why my son died,” she said. “I could not live with myself if I did that to someone else.”
Last week, Tafolla spoke to the student body at Union County High via video as part of State Farm's “Celebrate My Drive” campaign that promotes safe driving by teen-agers. The high school hopes to win a $100,000 grant by getting the most email votes to State Farm's website, www.celebratemydrive.com, before midnight on Oct. 24.
“I had some come to me and say 'You made me cry this morning,'” Tafolla said. “This really has affected me.
“If I can save one family from going through the pain and heartache I will talk 'till I'm blue in the face.”
Tafolla said she decided to leave Saluda High when she saw Anthony's classmates and thought that he should be there with them.
“I felt at peace when I took this job,” she said. “Who would have known this interdiction would be taking place? I came here at this time and this moment when the school was involved in this.”
Tafolla said her faith has helped her during the ordeal after losing her son.
“God was so sufficient about providing for our needs,” she said. “An anonymous person went to the funeral home and said 'my son died at a young age in a similar way; I want to pay for his funeral. People from the community, Saluda, Spartanburg provided monetary donations for anything and everything we needed. I didn't work the rest of the school year but our bills were covered. The Presbyterian and Baptist associations provided a plot for my baby.”
Anthony was a little boy who asked many questions, Tafolla said. Her father died three weeks before the accident and he asked, “What do you eat in heaven?” Tafolla said. “Do you get hungry?”
Anthony reminded his mother that he loved Cheez-Its and told her that when he died she'd better put some Cheez-Its in his casket.
After the accident, Tafolla said, a friend had a pendant made for her in the shape of a Cheez-It with Anthony's birthstone in the middle.
“Why did it happen this way? Maybe because God knew I would start to tell people what can happen if they don't pay attention to the road,” Tafolla said. “If I can save one life, I will do whatever I have to do.
“Lives will be changed.”

(Posted October 20, 2014)
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