As Ellen Atwood stood on the side of Old Coast Highway near Montecito on Sunday, the road wasn’t quite as straight as she remembered.
At a spot that she and her husband, Jim, will never forget, the Canadian couple spied pieces of familiar plastic still lying near the pavement — bits that once belonged to their red motorcycle, which was destroyed when the Atwoods were struck head-on by an SUV and critically injured on May 29, 2013.
Both lost their left legs in the trauma that followed.
Strange that the road’s shape is what first came to mind. Amazing, still, that Ellen and Jim are standing at all.
“We had to do it,” Ellen said of visiting the crash site nine months later. “It was something we wanted to do. Just to see, because your memory is not clear.
“We were on the straight part of it,” she continued, her voice trailing off a bit. “He just never turned his wheel.”
The Atwoods returned to Santa Barbara this week ahead of Wednesday’s sentencing of Martin Maguire, the 51-year-old Montecito man who pleaded guilty last October to felony DUI charges and special allegations of causing great bodily injury to the couple.
Marnee and Bill Paterson, the Atwoods’ longtime friends and travel companions on that fateful day, also made the trip back from Ontario, Canada.
All four sat down with Noozhawk on Tuesday to speak for the first time about the collision that cut short what was supposed to be a dream motorcycle trip of California, but instead became a nightmare.
“Emotional,” Jim and Ellen said almost in unison, recalling Sunday’s pilgrimage to the crash site near Montecito Country Club.
The couple tentatively inspected the scene with the help of new prosthetic legs.
Both are still undergoing exhaustive rehabilitation near their Orangeville home, which is now a two-bedroom unit at a local Marriott extended-stay hotel.
The Atwoods can no longer get around the multiple-story condo they bought just nine months before the collision, and they are still battling an insurance company over medical bills.
Jim spent more than three months recovering in the hospital, and three more months passed before Ellen was able to be released. Her leg developed an infection that nearly took her life, and she still has only partial control and feeling in her left arm.
The couple celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary in a hospital room they were thankfully allowed to share last July.
Ellen couldn’t walk at all until Christmas Eve — Jim snuck her out of the hospital for a party at the Patersons’ home — and sometimes they use wheelchairs.
Neither of them can work. Ellen, 59, was employed in operations at a grocery store chain, and Jim, 64, had planned to retire from his job at a Chrysler plant sometime next year.
“We’ve had some ups and downs,” Ellen said, describing the long, ongoing road to recovery.
Back at the scene of the crash, the Atwoods felt — above all — grateful.
Sentencing was the catalyst behind another trip to Santa Barbara, but returning to thank the countless first responders, medical professionals and well-wishing strangers was always part of the plan.
“It was truly incredible how we were treated,” Ellen said.
“It wasn’t just one person,” her husband added. “The doctors were fabulous.”
The Atwoods visited Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital on Monday, and were greeted with genuine smiles and astounded expressions as doctors watched Jim “show off” his new leg.
While walking the halls, they ran into William Barbaree, a surgical technician and one of the two good Samaritans who happened upon the grisly scene within seconds of the collision and immediately set to work helping the Atwoods.
Barbaree and Army veteran Nicholas McGilvray keep in touch with the Atwoods, who credit their quick actions with saving their lives.
Jim and Ellen mirrored the calm demeanor of their rescuers, and never once doubted that they would be reunited with their three sons, six grandchildren, and with each other.
“We knew that we had lots to live for,” Ellen said.
The Atwoods’ positive attitudes also struck a chord with the Santa Barbara community, whose residents have donated time, money, gift cards and more.
“It didn’t just impact us,” Jim said. “It impacted everybody. Their generosity doesn’t stop.”
The Atwoods didn’t want to share what outcome they were hoping for at Wednesday’s sentencing, just that they were happy they would be around to see it.
Maguire faces up to nine years in prison when he appears at 8:30 a.m. in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
Whatever the court decides, the Atwoods and Patersons plan to remain on the South Coast until Thursday.
Before flying back to Canada, they’re headed to see Malibu, the Santa Monica Pier and Hollywood — some popular sites from a vacation wish list made before their nightmare began.
— Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.