It was a harrowing scene.
On a well-traveled street in central Florida, a vehicle ran a stoplight, careened across the median and slammed head-on into a white Cadillac Escalade. Both vehicles spun around nearly 180 degrees, ending up in the middle of the intersection.
“It happened really fast,” says onlooker Tina Middaugh, who was in a nearby car with her husband. “The car came out of nowhere and they hit. I didn’t hear brakes squealing or horns beeping. I saw the car, and then literally two seconds later, I saw the crash. There was no time to react.”
As bystanders called 911, two women and a man jumped out of another vehicle and began to help. The two women in the Escalade were seriously hurt. The driver of the other car, a young woman who would be later charged with DUI, was also injured. “We didn’t know who anyone was,” Middaugh tells PEOPLE. “We certainly didn’t think anyone involved was famous.”
As it turned out, the Cadillac Escalade had been given to driver Ata Johnson as a gift from her son, wrestling superstar and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. In the passenger seat was Johnson’s cousin Lina Fanene, an up-and-coming talent with the WWE. They had spent the evening at a fundraising banquet for The Usos Foundation, a charity to benefit underprivileged youth.
Within minutes, the street was lit up by the flashing lights of police, an ambulance and a fire truck. Meanwhile, relatives of Johnson and Fanene, who had been driving in a vehicle behind the Escalade, stood by in stunned silence.
“To be honest, I went blank,” says retired professional wrestler Afa Anoa’i, a cousin of Ata Johnson and uncle to Fanene. “I couldn’t think. I just didn’t think it would happen to our family.”
Just minutes before the Aug. 2 accident, the family had left the fundraising banquet in Mineola, a suburb outside of Orlando, Florida. They wanted to spend more time together. “We decided to find a restaurant where we could sit for awhile,” says Anoa’i. “We followed them in our car.”
After the accident, a family member called Johnson, who dropped everything and rushed to be by his mother and cousin’s side. “We have a very close family,” says Anoa’i. “We take care of each other.”
The Rock was immediately angry. “My first reaction is to find the person who did this and do unrelenting harm to them,” he wrote on Instagram. “But then you realize the most important thing is my family lived thru this and we can hug each other that much tighter these days.”
A Long Recovery
Lina Fanene underwent surgery for a broken collarbone while Johnson was found to have a bruised chest and lungs. Johnson also injured her left arm and was fitted with a cast.
“Physically, they’re going to be okay,” Anoa’i says. “But they’re very emotional now. They’re shaken up, so this will take some time for them to get over.”
Still, both women are grateful that things weren’t more serious. “We are extremely lucky to be alive and that everything we have is fixable,” Fanene wrote on Instagram. “It’s a bump in the road, but we will get past it and be stronger than before.”
On Tuesday, Johnson posted a photo of himself wheeling his mother out of the hospital. “Banged up, but she’s a tough one and will make a full recovery,” he wrote. “Grateful to see her smile.”
A New Crusade
With Ata Johnson and Lina Fanene on the road to recovery, the family is focusing on spreading the word. “This is our family’s moment to remind people about the issue of driving while under the influence,” Anoa’i says. “It’s never worth it to drink and drive. We hear it so much, but I don’t think people really think about the consequences. If they did, they wouldn’t do it.”
“We were just so thankful that no one was killed, including the girl who was driving the other car,” Anoa’i continues. “We don’t want to see anything bad happen to anybody. But when we got the word that [the other driver] was under the influence, it really hit me. I realized how short life can be, and how people can make choices that can destroy their lives and the lives of others.”
And The Rock agrees. On nearly every Tweet and Instagram post since the crash, he has ended with the same hashtags: #ChoicesMatter, #100PercentPreventable and #DontDrinkAndDrive.
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