It was the spring of 1988. Four good friends in their 20s had left a birthday party. They were in a new Mazda 626 that authorities estimated was going 120 mph when it left the long, straight Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island shortly after midnight. It went airborne, glanced off a large oak and kept rising. It flipped end over end, hitting trees as high as 20 feet off the ground.
It crashed 265 feet from where it left the road.
The driver, Johnny Martin, was killed, and about a week later passenger Irvin Miller died. Tony Grant and Craig Rodney Holmes survived.
Flash forward to 2005.
Six people were killed in a wreck on the rain-slick road to Savannah — S.C. 170-A near Levy. A speeding truck skidded across the center line. Two teenage girls in the truck were killed along with all four people in the car that it hit.
A young couple and two teenagers in the back seat were headed home from a wedding. In the front seat were Grant’s stepdaughter, Shakeria Miley-Thomas, 22, and her husband, Jamal Thomas, 24.
Grant knows tragedy from two sides — as one who, by some fluke, survives, and as one who feels stabbed in the back by fate.
Many years have passed, and that helps.
But Grant learned quickly that “though you can’t really move on, you can’t question God.”
Grant comes from one of Hilton Head’s most prominent families.
He’s a son of entrepreneur Abe Grant and Charlie Mae Grant, who took the meager world of Gullah life on a lonely sea island and produced an engineer, an educator, a musician, a journalist and Tony, who for 21 years has worked in information technology for the Beaufort County School District.
That didn’t stop him from blaming himself for the 1988 wreck. The birthday party was at his house. His roommate from Morehouse College was in town visiting. Johnny Martin, 26, was driving, but Grant said, “The guilt could’ve eaten me up.”
When his step-daughter was taken in an unfair instant, Grant had to fight off anger and resentment.
He always had the support of his parents and his pastor, the late Rev. Ben Williams. He also had the support of Johnny’s mother, and they’re still Facebook friends. “I was part of their family, and Johnny was part of our family,” Grant said, “even working a summer at the restaurant (the former Abe’s Native Shrimp House run by his parents).”
Then, when his step-daughter was taken in an unfair instant, Grant had to fight off anger and resentment.
“The immediate thought is that it should have been reversed,” Grant said. “You ask, ‘Why do the good ones always die?’”
There’s a fine line between bitterness and accountability, Grant told me a year after that second accident.
“Of course you want (the driver who crossed the center line) to be accountable,” he said, “but all the punishment in the world is not going to bring back Shakeria and Jamal or any of the victims. But you do want him to be accountable.”
That driver remains in state prison with a projected release date of 2022.
God has a plan that we don’t understand.
“Once again, it all comes back to the fact that you can’t question why things happen,” Grant said last month. “God has a plan that we don’t understand.”
The lives of Grant and Holmes have never been the same.
Grant’s lasting injury is the loss of his left arm. He has a myoelectric-controlled prosthesis. He turned to bowling, and last month his team won its league for the fourth consecutive year. And twice Grant has bowled perfect 300s in competition.
He was ordained a deacon at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, and his disabled stepson A.J. Miley was named honorary deacon. He has been a Special Olympics bowling coach. He has fended off Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He and his wife, Beatrice, had a daughter together. And recently they were made grandparents.
Holmes was in a coma for 14 days. He broke vertebrae high on his spine and was left a quadriplegic. Doctors said he’d never walk again. The doctors were wrong.
I try to present to the kids that they shouldn’t let anything keep them down. You can always do something, each and every day.
Craig Rodney Holmes
Four years later, he was out of his wheelchair. He now drives, mows his lawn, dresses and cooks for himself, and for 21 years has worked at the Island Recreation Center. At one time, he worked with handicapped and disabled children.
“I try to be an example in front of the kids,” he told me. “I walk with a limp sometimes. I try to present to the kids that they shouldn’t let anything keep them down. You can always do something, each and every day.”
He has been on two mission trips to Nicaragua.
Holmes said the wreck drew him close to God. In fact, he was praying for Johnny Martin and his cousin Irvin Miller and Tony Grant, and he doesn’t know why because that was in the long period that he did not know anything about the wreck or what happened to his friends.
When he was told, “I just thought it was time to get moving, to work out physically and mentally and do something every day to get better.”
Grant and Holmes believe they were saved when they probably should not have been. They believe it had to be for a purpose.