Matt Swatzell fell asleep at the wheel in 2006 and crashed into a car, killing Erik Fitzgerald’s wife June and their unborn baby. Now, Swatzell and Fitzgerald couldn’t be closer.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Swatzell, 32, told Today of Fitzgerald. “As weird as it may sound and crazy, but we do. It’s unique.”
Swatzell was on his way home from a long day work as a firefighter paramedic in Dacula, Georgia, on October 2, 2006, when he began to nod off and went through the center line of the road.
“It was literally three or four seconds that it took to nod off and to cross the center line and to meet the other car,” Swatzell recalled to Today. He collided with 30-year-old June’s car, killing the woman and injuring her 19-month-old daughter, Faith.
“I can still see it. I can still smell it. The horrendous noise and the glass breaking.”
Both Fitzgerald, now 42, and Swatzell went to the hospital, and the toddler, Faith, survived, according to Today. There, Swatzell learned that June was pregnant and the baby did not make it.
“I’m supposed to be a helper,” Swatzell told Today‘s Hoda Kotb. “The EMT and the paramedic and fireman that helps in these tragic situations, and here I am, caused this.”
In the face of the tragedy, Fitzgerald, a pastor, recalled a message he heard in a sermon: “In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”
So, Fitzgerald declined to pursue the maximum sentence against Swatzell. Instead, a judge ordered him to pay a fine and do community service. The men did not meet until the two-year anniversary of June’s death. They were outside a grocery store when Fitzgerald approached Swatzell’s truck, the pair told Today.
Swatzell burst into tears and Fitzgerald told Swatzell that he forgave him.
“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgives me,” Swatzell recalled. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.”
Now, a decade later, the two have remained friends, with Swatzell even getting to know Faith, now 12 years old. The men meet up regularly and often spend time together during the holidays. And it’s all thanks to their hours-long conversation that day after meeting outside a grocery store, according to Today.
“I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re going to say to this, but I just feel like in my spirit that I’m supposed to stay connected to you somehow,’ ” Fitzgerald recalled to Kotb. “And he’s like, ‘Dude, I feel the same way.’ “
Although Swatzell said meeting Fitzgerald that day gave him hope, he still struggles with forgiving himself.
“I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.’ It doesn’t,” he told Today. “It’s nasty, it’s real, and it’s something that I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life.”