Gabriel Hurley had it all: youth, good job, beautiful girlfriend, new Ford Mustang and an upcoming trip to Las Vegas with the guys.
Then he went to run a quick errand at CVS on the night before his Vegas trip: June 18, 2009.
“That’s when my new life began,” Hurley said to an auditorium filled with Ocean City High School juniors on Tuesday morning.
That night on a narrow bridge in Middlesex, N.J., 10 kids in four cars were out on a joy ride, speeding, goofing around and not attentive to the road. The lead car spun out and hit the bridge. The hood popped open, and a heavy metal air-conditioning compressor went airborne — just as Hurley’s car passed.
The compressor crashed through Hurley’s windshield and into his face — cleaving and smashing his skull and obliterating all his facial features.
“I’m a medical miracle and very lucky to be alive,” said Hurley, who is now blind and has no sense of smell.
Hurley’s story was part of a distracted driving awareness assembly for all OCHS juniors and seniors organized by the Ocean City Police Department and Traffic Safety Unit Supervisor Brian Hopely.
The event coincides with National Distracted Driving Month in April. Statistics show that texting and driving causes 23 percent more accidents — with more than 3,000 teens dying annually in the U.S. in accidents related texting, according to the Ocean City Police Department. Police departments throughout the state have issued more than 3,000 summonses to distracted drivers in April as part of the “U Drive, U Text, U Pay” campaign. The event also comes about four weeks before Ocean City’s high school prom.
Hurley will go on to tell his story at Egg Harbor Township High School and at Buena Regional High School before returning home to Middlesex.
“My life shows the capriciousness of fate,” Hurley said. “But how we drive and the choices we make when we’re behind the wheel of a car are within our control.”
Now 29 years old, Hurley was 24 when the accident occurred. He said he was a good student and athlete at St. Joseph High School in Metuchen, and he graduated from Rutgers University in 2008. He had a full-time job in the IT Department at Virgin Mobile.
“My life was about to begin,” he said.
Instead, he woke up in darkness and attached to monitors. Doctors reconstructed Hurley’s face in 12 reconstructive surgeries. He now lives with a lot of help from family and friends and is committed to using his story to help others.
He said he’s chosen happiness over self-pity, and his rock band, The New Black, performs at venues such as the Stone Pony. Part of his presentation on Tuesday included jamming on guitar.
Hurley’s story resonated with his audience — with many students lingering after the assembly to greet and thank him.
The driver who struck him left the same accident with only a broken wrist and a summons for reckless driving.
“Regardless of what happens to the individual who did this to me, it does not change anything,” Hurley said.
What could have changed something, he said, would be for the driver or any of the other nine kids to have acted differently on that fateful night.
“It would have taken only one of them to speak up and say something,” he said.
And that was his message to the Ocean City High School upperclassmen.