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A morning that began with a hike on La Luz Trail by six Rio Rancho High School basketball players June 18 ended with two of the girls rushed to University of New Mexico Hospital after they were involved in a horrific accident on Tramway Boulevard, near Academy Boulevard, after the hike.
The driver, Georgia Salata, had turned 16 one day before – when she received that shiny red car as a birthday present. Her passenger, Amaya Payne, was trapped in the crushed vehicle for at least 30 minutes until firefighters extricated her.
Amaya’s feet were pushed into the back seat, her mother, Michelle Pacheco-Ortiz, noted later. “Had her seat not moved the way it did, her whole body would have taken the whole impact.”
Two young men in the car that ran a red light and T-boned Salata’s car about 10:45 a.m. were seen fleeing the scene and have yet to be apprehended, as of press time.
Salata’s father Wally, the RRHS boys basketball coach, reported that evening on Facebook that his lucky-to-be-alive daughter had suffered “four fractures in her neck and four fractures in her upper body and 14 staples on the left side of her head and a set of six stitches sewn inside her head, and another 12 stitches on top of that.”
On June 19, Wally Salata reported, also on Facebook, “She will not need surgery. This was a huge sigh of relief. Today was the first time she was able to eat solid food. … Georgia is no longer on the IV … she was moved out of ICU and into a regular room.”
On Father’s Day, June 21, Wally Salata wrote on Facebook, “This morning Georgia had a chance to walk to Amaya’s room and spend 15 minutes with her. I think this was good therapy for both of them, since they haven’t seen each other since the accident.”
Monday evening, Georgia was sent home.
“It’s frustrating,” Wally Salata said. “I’m angry, but not as angry as I can be – my thoughts are on Georgia and Amaya. It’s tragic; it’s so scary. It’s your own daughter in an accident and you didn’t know if she was going to come out alive, then seeing her in a neck brace. She had shards of glass all over her body and in her hair, her upper back to head.
“My mom’s in heaven and she was looking down on her,” he said.
Sandra Salata, the girl’s mother, spent three nights in the hospital with her daughter.
“As a family, we are so very grateful to God for his mercy in allowing Georgie and Amaya to survive that horrible accident,” she said. “We are also especially appreciative to the RRHS basketball teams, their families, (and the) Rio Rancho and Albuquerque communities. … We know we are blessed to have such a great support system and will be eternally grateful.”
Meanwhile, Payne’s mother, Pacheco-Ortiz, knew something had happened when she got a terrified call from one of her daughter’s teammates – and heard screaming in the background.
“I had my 3-year-old with me; I put her in the car and we went to the scene,” she said. “I knew it was going to be a 30- to 45-minute drive to get there (from Rio Rancho). I called my oldest daughter (who works in Albuquerque), and she dropped everything and left. She called me and said, ‘Mom, they finally got her out; meet us at University Hospital.'”
She later heard that, “This (unidentified) man held her hand the entire time till the firemen got there, (despite concerns the car would catch fire with oozing fluids),” she said. “… He didn’t care if she had corona or if she was Black or white; he was there to help my daughter – it really demonstrates to you there is good in this world.”
At UNMH, she continued, “When I saw her, she was loopy from all the medication they had given her. I had gotten to the ER before she arrived, probably an hour and a half while they were assessing her. I was begging for God to spare her life, (wondering) does she have internal injuries? Did she break her back? Will she be paralyzed?
“I also was praying that Georgia was alive,” she recalled, knowing the two are best friends. “When I saw Amaya, she cried and I cried and we hugged, and she said, ‘Mom, I thought we were going to die. … I was trapped and nobody could get me out. I kept seeing Georgia and she wouldn’t talk to me – she had this weird look; I don’t know if she’s dead.’
“I had to plead with medical staff to see Georgia’s mom. When she told me, it was a sigh of relief: They had substantial injuries, but I knew they were going to survive; we could be thankful they’re here with us today.”
Her daughter suffered three breaks in her right femur, with a rod inserted to stabilize that injury; and she also broke her left foot.
Payne underwent 4½ hours of surgery June 19, and then “lost a lot of blood” Sunday, when Pacheco-Ortiz heard her daughter needed a blood transfusion. She improved and was sent home Tuesday.
“My daughter was supposed to get her (driver’s) license that day, and said, ‘Oh, yeah, we can do that afterwards,'” she said. “These are good girls: They don’t drink; they don’t go to parties.”
Unlike the Salatas, who have been in Rio Rancho a long time, Payne was a virtual newcomer, having transferred to RRHS from Hope Christian School, where she also played basketball, before the 2019-20 school year.
“Rio Rancho opened their arms to her; Rio Rancho is a different community, so tight-knit – they have each other’s backs, and everybody welcomed her (to the program),” Pacheco-Ortiz said.
It’s doubtful either girl will be ready for basketball season – if there is one – in the 2020-21 school year.
“So far, yeah, this is the worst tragic thing that has happened to my kids,” Pacheco-Ortiz said.
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