Mother says West Fargo 26-year-old killed in motorcycle crash lacked riding experience
FARGO—Danika Murphy grew up in a family of motorcycle enthusiasts, but was new to the thrills of riding herself. Just last summer, she bought a starter bike, a Honda Rebel 250, went through the basic rider's course and got her license.
Her mother, Cyndi Woeck of Hendrum, Minn., said Danika was excited.
"Just the feeling it gave her. Powerful, independent, cool," Cyndi said.
But between then and this spring, she rode fewer than a dozen times, and that inexperience ended up costing the 26-year-old from West Fargo her life.
It also led her family to make a powerful but tragic connection with an Iraq war veteran — the man driving the truck she struck.
A false confidence
Cyndi said Danika took her first long ride only one day before the accident, Monday, April 3.
"I think she was very nervous," Cyndi said, after speaking with a friend who rode with her.
But Cyndi thinks her daughter found a false sense of confidence. Despite being warned by her parents to stay off the interstate, Danika hopped on her bike the next afternoon and tried to merge on I-94 from the 25th Street ramp in Fargo.
She hit the back tire of a flatbed semi and was thrown from the bike, suffering grave injuries, including severe head trauma. Eight days later, she was taken off life support at a Minneapolis hospital, surrounded by family.
"She went peacefully, and honestly, if we knew on Monday the day of the accident, we would never have put her through that pain," Cyndi said.
Before Danika died, Cyndi reached out to the semi driver, 31-year-old Jake Jennerman of Weston, Wis.
She assured him he didn't cause the crash and that the family didn't want him to feel guilty. The call was a soothing salve on an open wound and the start of healing for both.
"I can't even put words to it," said Jennerman, an Iraq War veteran. "It hurt, but at the same time, it hurt in a good way."
In a split second
Jennerman remembers everything that happened that warm afternoon, as he drove through Fargo on his way to deliver a load to Washington state.
His flatbed semi was in the right lane of the interstate when he noticed a motorcycle coming down the ramp to his right. A longtime rider himself, he said he pays attention to bikes.
His attention then turned to a pickup hauling a trailer next to him, to be sure it was in its lane.
In a split second, it happened.
"I felt and heard a thump," Jennerman said.
He immediately checked his mirror to see the bike and its driver cartwheeling through the air.
Jennerman stopped his semi as quickly as he could, coming to rest a quarter mile down the road, and immediately called 911. An ambulance arrived before he was even off the phone. He saw that several drivers had stopped to tend to the fallen rider, so he remained in his semi to wait for law enforcement.
In hindsight, Jennerman could tell Danika was a rookie rider in the instant he saw her on the ramp.
"She came down too fast and with her limited riding experience, that pushed her to the outside of the curve," he said.
Where the ramp and the semi's lane came together, there was nowhere to go.
Danika suffered breaks to her pelvis, tailbone, shoulders, arm and had two broken femurs. Her left leg was "degloved" from thigh to calf, a medical term for when a traumatic force pulls skin away from the underlying tissue.
At Essentia Health in Fargo, before Danika was flown to Hennepin County Medical Center, a flight nurse said Danika needed a tourniquet because of the bleeding. Cyndi pleaded with the nurse to save her daughter's leg.
"The nurse grabbed a hold of me and said, 'We gotta save HER!' " Cyndi said.
As a woman who loved to dance, the family was most concerned about Danika's legs. The worst injury, however, was to her brain.
She was wearing a helmet, but it came off from the impact, with the chinstrap still fastened.
At 5 feet 9 inches and only 105 pounds, Danika was a slight woman; and the helmet she was wearing was a size medium — too big for her, according to her mother.
Despite all of her injuries and pain, Danika did respond to verbal stimuli in the early days after the crash.
The 'other driver'
Sometime after pulling into Washington, Jennerman received a phone call from a Minnesota number he didn't recognize. It was Cyndi, letting him know that the family in no way held him responsible for the crash. Jennerman was devastated to hear the extent of Danika's injuries.
On his return trip home, he met with Cyndi and her husband, Ken, in Fargo to put together the puzzle pieces of what had happened.
The next day, Cyndi let Jennerman know Danika's neurological tests had worsened, that her pupils were no longer reacting to light properly. He decided not to drive home to Wisconsin, against his employer's wishes, and parked his flatbed at a truck stop outside the Twin Cities. He had a friend drive him to the hospital.
Danika's family wanted Jennerman to see her.
"They brought me into her room. I held Danika's hand and I collapsed on the floor next to her bed," he said.
He gave the family a bracelet he'd worn through two tours of duty in Iraq, and they placed it on Danika's wrist. Jennerman's wife and friend also joined him at the hospital.
One of the nurses told Cyndi that in all her years on the job, she's never seen the "other driver" in a crash show up.
For both families, that was the only way it should be.
"There was so much potential for all of these negative feelings to explode and the exact opposite happened," Jennerman said.
Bringing people together
Cyndi said Danika was a shy, awkward kid, who was teased a lot in school and used that to empower others.
"She was just for the underdog all the time," Cyndi said.
Danika had three sisters and four brothers and was a champion for her youngest sister Zoe, who has epilepsy. For a time, she was a certified nursing assistant working with dementia patients, before deciding to pursue a psychology degree at North Dakota State University.
Cyndi said Danika chose that path because she used to be a "cutter," causing self harm as a teenager. But she worked through her problems and decided she wanted to reach out to others.
"She was never judgemental. I could talk to her about everything," Cyndi said.
A celebration of life will be held in Hendrum on Saturday, April 22. Jennerman and his family will attend and be guests in Cyndi and Ken's home over the weekend. Danika had a way of bringing people together, even in death, her mother said.
Danika's ashes will be spread in a mountainous area of Colorado and a memorial ride may be held sometime down the road.
In the short term, Cyndi implores riders to wear a helmet and protective clothing, to know their limits, and for vehicle drivers to be on the lookout for bikes.
"I never want to say my daughter was to blame, but I think it was her adventurous, free spirit. She just took it a little too far," Cyndi said.