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Originally published January 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 13, 2008 at 1:50 AM

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Anger, denial turn to hope nearly 4 years after tragedy

It was more than a year after Maria Federici lost her eyes before she could admit she was blind. Doctors, therapists and her mother told...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Maria's Law

House Bill 1478, known as "Maria's Law," was signed by the governor in 2005 and makes failing to properly secure a load a crime.

A person who causes an injury or death by failing to secure a load properly can be charged with a gross misdemeanor and face a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. A driver whose unsecured items cause property damage can now be charged with a misdemeanor.

A second law made victims of such crimes eligible for money from the state's Crime Victims Compensation program.

Before passage of the laws, drivers who lost their loads could only be cited for a traffic infraction and fined a maximum of $250.

To contact Maria Federici and Robin Abel about speaking engagements, call 425-343-3454.

It was more than a year after Maria Federici lost her eyes before she could admit she was blind.

Doctors, therapists and her mother told her "about a million times" that the blackness was permanent, but she couldn't bring herself to acknowledge it.

"I couldn't even say the word 'blind,' " said Federici, 28.

It's been nearly four years since a board flew off a rented trailer on Interstate 405, smashed through the windshield of Federici's Jeep and sheared off much of her face.

Since then, Federici has undergone seven reconstructive surgeries, had a state law making it a crime not to secure loads named in her honor and won a $15.5 million court judgment against U-Haul and the man who failed to tie down the load that struck her car.

She has yet to receive any money because U-Haul has appealed November's jury verdict. But her lawyers expect she will eventually receive enough money to pay her living expenses and medical bills for the rest of her life.

Federici is now looking forward to finding her own place, venturing out more and having some fun. She's dating, giving public talks about the accident and learning to maneuver her way through life without her sight.

At her side is her mother, Robin Abel, 54, who left her bank job to care for her daughter.

Abel has not had a full night's sleep since the accident, but she has found a cause in her daughter's tragedy.

She is on a mission to educate people about the dangers — and the liabilities — of failing to properly secure loads in trailers and in the beds of pickups. She and her daughter have helped create videos on the topic.

Federici speaks willingly alongside her mother — not so much because it's her passion as because it breaks the monotony of her days.

"Maria's Law," the legislation that made it a crime to carry an unsecured load, is more her mother's crusade than hers.

Federici is not religious and doesn't draw significance from the accident beyond the physical damage it caused. She doesn't feel she's different despite the drastic changes in her life.

"I feel like I'm exactly the same person I've always been," she said. "Except I can't drive. I miss driving!"

An organized life

Federici and her mother live in a three-room cottage on Lake Kathleen east of Renton with five dogs, lovingly tended vegetable and flower gardens, a weathered rowboat and floating pier for having barbecues and daydreaming.

An only child whose father was never much a part of her life, she's shared this home with her mother since she was 9.

She knows every inch of the house. But that doesn't keep her from occasionally bumping into things like open doors and cupboards.

Compulsive about cleanliness and order, Federici does most of the housekeeping as she has since she was a child. She vacuums, mops, washes dishes, takes out the trash, wipes down the fine old wood pieces and dusts her mother's eccentric collections of rare china and glassware.

Her obsession with organization was one thing that made it easier to adjust to being blind, Federici said. Blind people are taught to organize and store items in a particular fashion so they can be easily found, she said. "Organization is hugely important," her mother said.

"I can see just how my closet looks in my mind," Federici said.

Federici and Abel are both stubborn, determined and independent. They have their fights.

"Come on," Federici said. "We're two women in a small space."

When that happens, Federici said, her mother yells, goes outside and slams the door. Federici grabs a cigarette, heads out the door and enjoys what she calls her only vice.

From the back they look like a matched set, except Federici has a big, bouncy mane of brown hair. Abel's is blond.

They're the same height, the same shape. They wear the same size 4 jeans.

Her mother was good at buying clothes for them both, Federici said, but Federici recently rediscovered the joys of shopping herself.

She found that her fingers could find clothes she liked easily if she was led to a promising rack.

"And put me in the shoe aisle anywhere and I can always find a pair I like," she laughs.

Money is a cause of stress right now, though.

While they await the resolution of their court case, they are living off savings, donations, disability payments and the honorariums they make from their speeches.

"We wouldn't have been able to afford Maria's surgeries if not for the fundraisers that were held" by people in the bartending industry, Abel said.

While attending the University of Washington on an academic scholarship, Federici began working as a cocktail waitress at Belltown Billiards.

Almost immediately, she decided she'd rather tend bar.

"I didn't like carrying all those glasses though crowds," she said.

A natural flirt, with looks, a sharp tongue and a quick wit, she was pouring shots and serving up beers within weeks. She kept bartending after she graduated because she loved it and the money was great.

On Feb. 22, 2004 she'd agreed to fill a shift at a club in Kirkland.

She was headed home on I-405 to her studio apartment in Renton shortly before midnight when a board from an entertainment center flew out of a rented U-Haul trailer and crashed through the windshield of her Jeep.

The driver, who did not stop, was tracked down by police weeks later from a fingerprint on the particleboard.

He claimed he was unaware of what had happened, and was issued a traffic citation. Despite Federici's injuries, his failure to tie down his load was not a crime.

"Maria's Law" changed that.

She thought she could see

Federici has no memory of the accident, something she and her mother are both grateful for.

She was conscious within weeks, though, and angry. Her first word was "Mom." What followed were obscenities. "I was super mad and cussing like a sailor," Federici said.

It didn't compute when people told her she was blind.

"When they told me what happened and it finally sunk in, I was like, 'Really? That happened?' "

She can't explain why it took so long to understand. She doesn't know if it was denial or just too impossible to believe. For a while, she thought she could see. When she heard her mother's voice, she pictured her talking.

"Everybody does it. You hear someone's voice and imagine what they look like and what they are wearing," she said.

When she listens to a movie now that she's already seen, she can see it play out perfectly in her mind.

Dreams for the future

These days, Federici lifts weights at a gym and takes long walks with her service dog, Sammy, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

A reconstructive surgeon was able to rebuild her face in a series of surgeries that led one doctor to refer to Federici as his colleague's "Mona Lisa."

Her prosthetic eyes still do not sit perfectly inside her rebuilt eye sockets, Federici said. She may elect at some point to have the sockets fleshed out with injections of fat.

But every surgery requires a long and painful recuperation and the results are sometimes disappointing.

"It's not worth it if it doesn't work," Federici said.

Before the accident, Federici dated frequently and casually. She defined serious relationships as those lasting longer than two months.

After the accident, she wanted to date but didn't feel she had that many choices.

She first dated a blind man and she's thankful for what he taught her about negotiating the world without sight.

Now she's seeing a man she had once snubbed.

"He was a security guard at the bar where I worked and he had a crush on me, but I didn't really notice him," she said.

He's kind to her. He tells her she's beautiful. When they're walking together, he knows how to guide her. He'll say something like, "We're coming to some stairs. There are five of them, then there's a landing."

"I guess if I'm grateful about anything," said Federici, "it's him."

She's anxious to get her own place and she dreams of having a condo on Alki where she can hear the water and walk in the sand.

She is not interested in learning to use a cane or to read Braille.

"It feels like sand. It's really irritating and there's no need for it because of technology." She said she can scan any paper into the computer and it will read the words to her.

Used to juggling work, school and her social life, her biggest enemy now is tedium.

"I just sit here and listen to TV and get so bored. I wrack my brains for something to do, but it's hard to think of anything that's fun."

No deeper meaning

The public-service announcement messages and speeches Federici and Abel have made have sparked training and policy changes statewide. At every solid-waste facility in King County, for example, there are reminders and warnings about the penalties of not properly tying down a load. King County officials said citations are regularly issued.

Abel directs her speeches to leaders in construction, landscaping and home-improvement companies, explaining how the right equipment and proper training will prevent tragedies like Maria's and save them money. "It only takes a few dollars and a little bit of time," Abel said.

"Doing this is the only way I could feel good about what happened," she said.

Federici is often greeted in public by people who recognize her. They offer encouragement, thank her for "Maria's Law" and say she inspires them. Sometimes they give impulsive hugs.

"I know it's in good spirits," she said, "but I can't see them coming and it's a big shock sometimes."

It's given her a little feeling of what it's like to be a celebrity.

But she doesn't see herself as any kind of celebrity or hero or poster child. She doesn't want to be looked up to or pitied.

She doesn't dwell on the accident and seems genuinely puzzled when asked about lessons learned.

"I don't think there is any deeper meaning," she said. "This is just something that happened to me."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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