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Survivor goes home with dad

Katie Malmquist is the sole survivor of a crash last month on Interstate 75 that killed five, including her mother and two sisters.

In a dreary drizzle Friday afternoon, the father of three girls left town with just one.

Weighted down with carry-on bags, Jim Malmquist pushed a wheelchair carrying his freckle-faced, blue-eyed daughter toward a Southwest Airlines plane at Tampa International Airport.

Slowly, purposefully, he pushed, taking care that no purse or garment bag banged her battered arm and leg. That no hand brushed against the lacerations on the forehead of the only girl in the world now who calls him dad.

"This is it," the 57-year-old home builder said as he eyed Katie. "The other two-thirds of my family is gone."

Malmquist's two other daughters, 9-year-old Gail and 12-year-old Jackie, and his ex-wife, 42-year-old Alexis Malmquist, died from injuries suffered in a July 22 crash on Interstate 75 as they headed to their grandparents' home in Englewood. Friday afternoon, Malmquist and his sole surviving daughter were headed to Cary, Ill.

Back to the town where he hoped the comforts of home would blunt memories of the radio broadcast from which he learned about the freak accident.

Where the rituals of everyday life would wash away Katie's guilt for swapping seats with Jackie moments before the crash, thereby putting her twin sister in the path of the Honda Accord that crossed the highway median and barreled into the southbound GMC van.

Where friends and relatives could help smooth the raw images in Jim Malmquist's mind of Jackie lying unconscious, dependent on a respirator and never aware that her father was gazing upon her and willing her to open her eyes during the four days she clung to life at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

"We are so glad to be getting out of here. Everyone has been very kind to us here," Malmquist said moments before boarding the plane. "But now we need to get home."

A soft-spoken man, Malmquist spoke with the Times Friday because he said he wanted people in the area to know about his daughters and the joy they had brought into his life. While his children lived with their mother, he spoke with them every night and visited with them every weekend, taking them to dinner and a movie on Friday nights and often driving them to his parents' farm in Morris, Ill., on Saturdays.

He wanted people to know that Gail had been a leader and a gifted student, that Jackie had been a beautiful blond with a penchant for performing and writing.

But he spoke also to warn people that they could lose their loved ones if a barrier is not installed along a strip of interstate in Pasco County near State Road 54.

"This is an extremely dangerous area and very deceptive. You've got a 60-foot median that you might think is plenty of distance between cars. But a car traveling at 70 mph could cross the median in half a second," he said.

Had there been a barrier of some kind dividing the grassy strip, the Honda Accord might not have been able to cross the median and, without obstruction, slam into the van carrying his daughters.

"My ex-wife didn't have a chance to see that car coming. She had no idea what hit her," he said. "Something as simple as trees could have saved their lives."

Katie has no recollection of the crash. Instead, she lives with the painful memories of the moments before. As she and her sisters were settling in to watch the movie Ever After from their back seats in the van, younger sister Gail insisted on switching seats with her. There she goes again, Katie thought at the time, always bossing me around.

"She wanted the better seat," Katie recalled. And Katie had acquiesced.

The driver and passenger in the Honda Accord, which crossed the median for unknown reasons, died instantly, as did Gail and her mother.

Hundreds of miles away, on an Illinois highway, Jim Malmquist heard about the crash as he drove home from work. The radio broadcast relayed that a Cary family had been involved in a deadly crash but offered no first names.

Malmquist knew. He called the Cary police, who confirmed his worst fear.

"I didn't stop. I headed right for the airport," he said.

When he arrived, he expected to find Gail and Katie fighting for their lives. Initial reports had relayed that one twin had died and his youngest had survived. Instead, he found Gail dead and Jackie and Katie unconscious.

"I had no idea who was alive and who was dead," he said.

Katie awoke from her haze two days after the crash. "She was squeezing my finger. Jackie never did," Malmquist said.

Shortly afterward, Malmquist said, he told Katie that her mother and youngest sister had died. He told her Jackie was alive, though not awake, and that she could visit her.

Two days later, Jackie died.

Katie, though, made steady improvement. After several surgeries, Katie was ready to leave the hospital this week. She and her father were to have stayed in the Tampa Bay area for a few more days while Katie underwent physical therapy for her broken arm and severed leg muscle, but Malmquist decided that a dose of home would be the best cure for his daughter.

They will return to Cary and live in the house where Katie and her sisters had lived with their mother. And they will go to their loved ones' fresh graves, which they have not seen. Malmquist said he made memorial service arrangements from Florida but did not attend the services so he could stay with Katie.

Sitting in the airport with his daughter next to him on Friday, Malmquist spoke calmly of his loss, though his face was taut and his eyes bleary from lack of sleep. One thought, he said, was getting him through the nightmare that had enveloped his life.

"I'm focused on Katie. What's best for her," he said.

Katie said her coping mechanism was more meditative.

"I say good night to my mom and sisters every night," she said.

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