PINE BUSH – One month ago, Danielle Burns, a tenth grader at Pine Bush High School, was lying in the ICU Trauma unit at Valhalla, Westchester County, while doctors marveled that she was still alive.
This week, she managed to make it back to school: an amazing turnaround for someone who came within a whisker of being killed the night of September 25.
Danielle had been hit by a white Honda, driven at speed, as she and a friend walked on the side of Route 52, close to the Stewart's Shop on the corner with Boniface Drive.
"She was left at the side of the road," says her mother, Laurie Napolitano, "with severe head injuries, a fractured skull, a dissected carotid artery, and bleeding from the left side of her brain and hematoma on the right side."
When you realize that Danielle's head went through the windshield of the car that struck her, and that her body then flew over the top of the car and landed in the road, you can understand what the doctors in Valhalla were thinking as they treated her on the night of September 25.
"This kid, she's a miracle," says Napolitano. "That she survived at all is incredible."
In the past few weeks, Danielle has gone from wheelchair, to crutches, and is now walking with just a brace on one ankle.
In fact, the miraculous seems to have gone into overdrive from the moment of impact.
"The first person who stopped to help was a paramedic in training, and he provided emergency care before the ambulance got there." Napolitano still can't quite believe the amazing chain of fortunate events that combined to save her daughter's life.
At that point, however, two other figures entered the story. Two young men from Pine Bush, Joseph Mennite and Steve Howard, who had just returned from the football game at Wallkill High School, were driving into town. They stopped and made inquiries about what had happened. When they heard that a white car, like a Honda Civic, had driven away from the accident they didn't hesitate.
Joe Mennite says, "We hopped back into my dad's truck and went back up 52. We looked up Hill Avenue, first, but then we got back to 52 and kept going east. We found a white car hidden up at the gate of the Walden Sportsmen's Club, so we pulled up behind it."
At that point the alleged hit and run driver, Angela Burnett, 31, who has given an address in Pomona, New York, came out of the woods.
Steve Howard says, "I saw that her right side mirror was dangling, and when she drifted away from us, I told Joe."
Soon after that a truck drove up, driven by Burnett's friend, Joseph Lucca.
Steve Howard recalls, "The guy got really nasty, cursed the car, and he went straight to the front of the car and started cursing. So we knew."
"Her boyfriend pulled up behind us," says Joe Mennite, "blocking us in with his Suburban. He walked up to the front of the white car and looked at it. Then he was telling us to mind our own business. Steve got the license plate number and we went back to Pine Bush."
Howard says, "I texted the license plate number to my phone, because I didn't have a pen and paper."
Back in Pine Bush, they found the police at the scene of the accident and gave them the description of the car and SUV, which eventually led to the police locating Burnett and her friend in that Suburban a few hours later in Wurtsboro.
Steve Howard notes that "the police were a little bit surprised when we told them about it — that somebody actually did something, I guess."
"If you get to an accident scene early, and if you have the ability to help, then you should help in any way you can," he concludes.
The victim's mother says the two young men were "angels. Without them, no one would have found the car. They went above and beyond to find out who did this horrific crime, so we would have some justice."
Meanwhile, Danielle and her mother had been flown to Valhalla by that point, and had begun her odyssey through the trauma unit and then to outpatient care.
"She will never be able to taste or smell anything again," says Napolitano. "That's the permanent damage. But we don't know about the rest. Her brain will take a year to heal."
And during that time, Danielle will have a lot of work to do. "She now has physical therapy, and cognitive therapy, and follow-ups with specialist doctors,' says her mother. "It's not easy, but we have to be thankful that she's alive.
"I want to thank the community for all the prayers that were said for her. That had to have helped. And I want to thank the ambulance crew and the Town of Crawford police for all their efforts."
At press time, the Orange County District Attorney's office has not announced a date for a Grand Jury hearing on the case against Angela Burnett.