by Randy Bishop
Beneath scars, a strong faith
and passion for life keep Joel Sonnenberg thankful.
A relaxing weekend getaway in Maine-thats what Mike and Janet
Sonnenberg, 32 and 29, were looking forward to as they traveled I-95 north from Nyack, New
York, on September 15, 1979. Their son, 22-month-old Joel, and their daughter, 3-year-old
Jami, would exhaust themselves at the beach, running and playing, Janet thought. Little
did the family know that, before the day ended, their lives would be permanently changed.
Their nightmare began without warning as they stopped at a tollbooth
just over the New Hampshire border. A 36-ton tractor trailer slammed into a line of five
cars, two of which carried the Sonnenbergs. The driver of the 18-wheeler claimed his
brakes failed, but police, after questioning those involved, speculated that he was trying
to hit a female acquaintance in the car in front of him.
Joel, Mike, and Mikes brother-in-law Doug Rupp, 27, were in the
Sonnenbergs green Chevy. Jami, Janet, and Dougs wife Kathy, 26, were in the
car behind them. The women fled their car uninjured. But the Chevy instantly exploded into
flames. Mike and Doug rushed out, their clothing and hair on fire, each thinking the other
had grabbed Joel. Neither had.
As his flesh burned, Joel cried. In the midst of the confusion,
motorist Michael Saraceni, 20, ran to the flaming car with a fire extinguisher. He heard
the toddler and heroically pulled Joel-still secured in his car seat-out of the vehicle.
Janet frantically screamed for her baby in the chaos. Kathy was the first one to notice
the charred car seat on the ground behind them.
Janet, a nurse, could not believe what she saw. In her book, Race for
Life, she recounts the scene: "(Joels) face was black. The hair was gone, and
the top of the head was white. The eyelids were burned shut, charred and beginning to
swell. The lips were burned off
The blackened arms, crisp with carbon, were
outstretched and quivering." Joel had third degree burns over 85 percent of his body;
only the skin covered by his wet diaper was untouched.
Janet sat in shock. Michael Saraceni squeezed her arm and said, "I
saved your baby. Hes going to be all right." His prognosis seemed doubtful.
Emergency personnel arrived within minutes, throwing water on the car
seat to cool Joels body. Rushed by ambulance to a southern New Hampshire hospital,
he was then transported by another ambulance to Harvard Medical Complex in Boston.
The outlook was grim; Joel was given a 10 percent chance of survival. A
few days later Joel was transferred across town to Shriners Burn Institute for the best
treatment available, namely painful skin grafts.
For more than four months, the family was in turmoil-separated, living
with strangers, torn apart by Joels suffering. Mike, a college science professor,
spent time hospitalized with a severely burned hand. The generosity of local Christians,
as well as prayers, cards, and financial support from believers around the world, kept
On February 2, 1980, Joel was discharged from the Shriners
hospital and returned home. He was badly disfigured-without any toes, without any fingers,
and without one hand. But Joel was very much alive.
A new struggle for the Sonnenbergs began that day: to do everything
possible for Joel to live a normal life in a world that would see him as
What hasnt Joel done?
Today, 21-year-old Joel is a junior at Taylor University in Upland,
Indiana, majoring in communications.
Joel spent parts of last summer at his parents home in Montreat,
North Carolina, along with his sister Sommer, 17, and brother Kyle, 8. (Jami, 23, is a
stockbroker in Indianapolis.)
Friends come in and out of the house. They play pool and video games.
Sommer and Joel discuss who has dibs on the car (yes, Joel can drive) and whose turn it is
to watch Kyle.
At different times, Joel spontaneously hugs his brother and sister-for
no reason except he loves them. Laughter and smiles fill the living room. Its indeed
Over the years, Joels list of accomplishments has grown with him.
Hes an Eagle Scout. He captained his high school soccer team, was voted prince at
the junior prom, carried the 1996 summer Olympics torch through his community, and
was named the Western North Carolina Citizen of the Year in 1996. He received a $17,500
college scholarship from Discover Card for his high school performance, extracurricular
activities, and inspiring attitude toward life.
He has traveled to Bolivia and Savannah, Georgia, on mission trips with
his church, Montreat Presbyterian. At Taylor, he was sophomore class president.
Joel lets his parents rattle off the achievements. He says awards are
great, but they dont allow people to see inside him. People cant get to know
him by hearing what hes done. Rather than stand on his achievements, he wants to
stand on who he is.
The man inside
Who is Joel Sonnenberg? How has he been shaped by the inexpressible
pain, both physical and emotional, the torture of more than 45 surgeries, the continual
stares from strangers and the occasional cruel comments like Take off your
"Ive never enjoyed the way I look, and I dont like to
look at myself in mirror all that much," Joel says.
Yet, somehow, hes at peace with himself, with the man who lives
inside a scarred body.
"As Ive gotten older, I was shown by the Lord that its
a true gift to be different," Joel says. He sees himself as a magnifying glass
highlighting the power of Gods love. "Thats my purpose, to show God is
good. God is so great in my life and He loves (others) just as much as He loves me."
This is the real miracle-a young man and his family who can recognize,
in this situation, the grace of God.
"Everything happens for a reason. The greatest times in my life
are when I reflect and see what God has done-all the provisions Hes had for
me," Joel says. "I say, Wow, theres gotta be a higher hand in
Im confident Jesus is the only answer."
Tears and justice
This past July, Joel and his family had to put their faith into action
in a New Hampshire courtroom during the sentencing of Reginald Dort, the truck driver who
caused the accident that forever changed the Sonnenbergs lives.
After the 1979 accident, Dort jumped bail and fled to his native Nova
Scotia, Canada, where he continued driving his semi. He made numerous trips across the
border until he was tripped up in the summer of 1997.
At a weigh station in Moline, Illinois, the attendant noticed
Dorts truck was 1,300 pounds overweight. She reported him to the state police, whose
records showed an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Justice finally caught up with Dort.
Dort was sent to the Rockingham County House of Corrections in New
Hampshire, where he was locked up for almost a year. In May 1998, as part of a plea
bargain agreement, Dort pleaded guilty to bail jumping and one count of second-degree
On July 17, 1998, at his sentencing, Mike, Janet, and their four
children filled the front row in the courtroom. Everyone but Kyle spoke to the court.
After recounting the pain and suffering caused by the accident, each family member spoke
of Jesus Christs power to transform lives and offer forgiveness.
As a part of her statement, Janet said: The beauty of what we
have experienced is that evil has turned into good-God has turned the worst devastation
into beauty, into a powerful story that He is using for His own purposes. Today, I give
Him all the praise for accomplishing so very much in Joels life and ours.
"I forgive Mr. Dort of his negligence and his destructive
The Lord can make him whole with a new and purposeful life."
Then, after describing the pain Joel and the family suffered during the
years of surgeries and dressing changes, Mike added: "I have come to hear you (Mr.
Dort) say you are very sorry. When you ask for my forgiveness I will forgive, but I cannot
forget. When you ask Jesus for forgiveness, He will forgive and forget."
The last person to address the truck driver was Joel.
"This is my prayer for you (Mr. Dort)
that you may know
that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Grace has no limits and the world does not make
sense without Him."
Tears flowed freely
Dort, 51, received a sentence of two to seven years in New Hampshire
state prison for assault, with the maximum sentence suspended. He will likely serve two
years, according to Assistant County Attorney Charles Benson. Dort was also sentenced to
one year in jail for bail jumping, but he already served that time. During the
proceedings, Dort didnt address the court. But, at the request of Judge Douglas
Gray, Dort turned to the Sonnenbergs and said, "Im sorry."
Attending the sentencing was cathartic and helped close a chapter in
their lives, Janet says. Both she and Mike agree that Dort, a man of little means and
education, seemed to be a deeply wounded person. Mike felt that Dort, despite his lack of
words, was truly penitent.
"I think (the sentencing) was a tough time for all of us, but it
was something we had to do," Joel says. He did not speak with Dort personally, though
he has not ruled out future contact. "Maybe Id like to contact him again, but
itll take some time. It will definitely be a private matter."
The Sonnenbergs hardly ever spoke of Dort before his arrest in 1997.
Joel heard his name only two or three times growing up. Though in some ways the sentencing
gave the family closure, they had moved on with their lives years before.
A lot more to do
Theres plenty Joel cant do, like tie his shoes, but
hes not afraid to push the limits. He rides his bike, plays ping-pong and
volleyball, and is a leading member of the student body at Taylor. His favorite verse is
Philippians 4:13, "I can do everything through Him (Christ) who gives me
Joel, baptized four years ago, is determined to experience life to its
fullest. "I want to die saying Ive tried it all," he says.
In addition to his student responsibilities, Joel is in demand as a
speaker. Its his calling, he says, to share how Gods unconditional love has
made all the difference in his life.
Many people have told Joel hes their hero. He loves it when
people tell him how his testimony has changed them, but he wants everyone to know
hes only human.
"Im not a storybook character. Im a real person. I
have emotions. I sin just like everybody else," Joel says.
When people stare or treat him insensitively, he sometimes gets angry,
sometimes ignores them, sometimes leaves, and sometimes smiles. Its always a
"Im still learning to smile at peoples
curiosity," he says. "All our Christian walks are a process."
Joel tries not to think about the future too much. Hes more
concerned about doing as much as he can right now.
After college, he plans to continue with his speaking ministry and
hopes to explore writing options. He wants to tell his story to as many as possible.
"Hes going to be someone who God is going to use in many
ways," says Montreat Presbyterians youth minister, Shawn Stewart.
Joel, who has dated a few young women, hopes to one day marry a woman
with that "Sonnenberg spark." He also would like to have children, which
"would be the miracle of all miracles, icing on the cake-Gods cake," he
Ultimately, Joels hope rests in heaven. Hell have hands and
a new body, and hell be in Loves presence forever.
"Deaths gonna be a cinch compared to all Ive gone
through," he says. "Heaven means freedom from everything-the world, the bonds of
all our scars. I look forward to it."
Reprinted by permission, Christian Reader, Nov/Dec98 Issue.