Two years since the unthinkable happened in the center of town
An unsettling feeling came over me as I drove home from covering an event at Montreat College last week.
Facing south on Montreat Road, I prepared to turn left onto State Street as I made my way back to my office to pick up my computer before going home for the night.
I looked down at my clock and it said 6:47 p.m.
I got a sudden chill as I recalled a moment in that very intersection that shattered the tranquility of a winter evening exactly two years ago.
I was lighting the grill on my back porch around that time on Feb. 27, 2017. Suddenly, I heard the piercing scream of sirens near downtown Black Mountain.
I don’t remember how I learned there had been a horrible collision in that intersection, but every subsequent detail that emerged was even more awful than the previous one.
One person told me they were sitting at a restaurant on State Street when a driver heading west on the road, at speeds reportedly 100 miles per hour over the posted speed limit, crashed into a car passing through the intersection. That individual did not witness the impact, but described the sound as “horrendous.”
The community would come to learn that the car heading north on Montreat Road, just before 7 p.m., was driven by Montreat College track and field coach Britten Olinger. He was simply heading home from practice.
The collision damaged multiple vehicles in the area and shattered the glass of the Town Hardware & General Store, one of the most recognizable storefronts in the historic district.
The wreck left Coach Olinger fighting for his life.
It’s impossible to imagine what the coach's family endured in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy, but the community was clearly shaken by the incident.
I’ve personally heard at least half a dozen anecdotes from residents who recall passing through that same intersection in the minutes leading up that fateful moment.
I’ve met people, including firefighters and police that were on duty at the stations nearby, who rushed to the scene to help.
As news came out that the Olingers had only moved to the area a few months before the unthinkable happened and had a young daughter, the Swannanoa Valley was quick to rally around the family.
A GoFundMe campaign created by the Olinger family raised nearly $50,000 in less than 24 hours, and by spring #brittenstrong was familiar to nearly everyone in the area, raising over $110,000.
Lookout Brewing Co. organized a fundraiser in the days following the incident.
Students from Montreat College painted words of support for their coach on the plywood that covered the windows at Town Hardware, where owner Peter Baullhaussen had been standing just minutes before part of a vehicle came crashing through.
On the one-year anniversary of the crash, Peter’s wife Beth told me she still thought about the Olingers every day.
Coach Olinger miraculously survived the crash but was paralyzed from the chest down. A team of locals got together to design and renovate the Olinger home in Black Mountain, allowing for wheelchair access.
The Olingers welcomed their second child, a son, that fall.
The best of this community was on display in the aftermath of that terrible day, as countless fundraisers were held to help the family.
A golf tournament was held last year and the #BrittenStrong 5K, which also raises money for the Olingers, will return for its third year on April 28.
I’ve written several stories about the incident and the community’s response. While it is heartwarming to see the community rally around the coach and his family, it’s never easy to write about.
Sometimes when I’m walking on The Oaks Greenway I’ll see Coach Olinger out there coaching Montreat athletes and I’m inspired by his perseverance.
On the second anniversary of the wreck, he posted on his Facebook page that he's been healthy since last May, giving him the opportunity to venture outside of his comfort zone. Coach Olinger also recalls the complications that plagued him in the months after his life changed forever.
As I passed through that intersection in the middle of town roughly two years to the minute of the senseless tragedy, I think the same thought that so many in this community have wrestled with since it happened — it could have been any of us.
I parked safely in front of my house minutes after passing through downtown and pulled down the visor on the driver’s side. Affixed there, as it’s been for the past two years, is a pin with the picture of Coach Olinger that reads #brittenstrong.
I’m reminded of how much love and support this community showed the Olingers in their darkest hours, but I also know they will still need it for years to come.
Donations for Britten Olinger and his family can still be made at gofundme.com/brittenstrong.