A new chapter in the life of a close-knit family of four — soon to be five — ended tragically before it could begin, on a stretch of highway in western Nebraska.
Christopher and Diana Schmidt and their sons, Samuel, 3, and Connor, 2, were en route early Sunday to their new home near Sacramento, Calif., relatives said, when they were all killed in a wreck on Interstate 80 just west of Sidney. They were moving to California from Gaithersburg, Md.
Diana Schmidt was about 30 weeks' pregnant with the couple's third child, who was to be named Ethan.
“It sounds like a cliche, I know, but Sam and Connor really were the center of the lives of my daughter and her husband,” said Brad Baumann of Rocklin, Calif. “They would all take the metro train into (Washington) D.C. and spend time at the museums and the National Zoo. They really just loved being together as a family.”
Here is how the accident unfolded, based on accounts from family members, the accident report and statements to the Cheyenne County Sheriff's Office:
The Schmidts were excited to be moving back to Northern California, where they grew up.
Diana was driving a 2007 Toyota Corolla with the two boys. Chris was behind her, in their 2010 Ford Mustang. They used walkie-talkies to communicate between the two cars.
The family was on the road early each morning so the boys would sleep for as much of the trip as possible.
Both cars were stopped just west of Sidney about 4:20 a.m., waiting for authorities to clean up a fatal wreck involving two semitrailer trucks.
Another semi, driven by Josef Slezak, 36, of River Grove, Ill., approached the stalled traffic from the rear. Other truckers said during CB radio chatter that Slezak's rig didn't appear to slow down before the crash.
His semi slammed into the back of Chris' Mustang, pushing it into Diana's Corolla.
The collision forced the Corolla to slide under the truck in front of it, which was driven by William Wiener, 49, of Algona, Iowa.
The Schmidts were pronounced dead at the scene. Three family pets, two dogs and a cat, also died.
Authorities said all the vehicles burst into flames after the collision. Wiener tried dousing the blaze with his fire extinguisher before disconnecting his trailer to avoid further damage to his rig.
Wiener said Slezak, who was uninjured, appeared to be in shock.
Slezak, who speaks mainly Czech, was being held Wednesday in the Cheyenne County Jail. Bail was set at $1 million.
He has been charged with four counts of manslaughter, four counts of vehicular homicide and one count of motor vehicle homicide of an unborn child.
Wiener told deputies that as he neared the scene of the initial accident, “there was constant chatter on the CB radio of other truck drivers warning everyone to slow down due to the (first) accident and traffic being stopped.”
Wiener looked in a rearview mirror, noticed a semi approaching fast and braced for impact.
Slezak told authorities that he “saw nothing” before the crash and that he doesn't listen to the CB radio, so he didn't have it on.
“It's deplorable that this family was taken out,'' Cheyenne County Attorney Paul Schaub said.
He said Slezak, “from his vantage point high above, should have been able to see what was happening far ahead.”
Donna Costley of Antelope, Calif., Christopher Schmidt's mother, said Wiener contacted her via the Internet after the names of the victims were released.
“He wanted to let us know that they didn't suffer,” Costley said. “He said they wouldn't have known what hit them and they would've died instantly. We're so grateful for that.”
The couple met at church as children. Baumann said his future son-in-law “stood out as a kind of fun-loving prankster” who had many friends.
Chris joined the Air Force after high school and reconnected with Diana after returning from a stint in South Korea. They were married in 2005.
Baumann said Chris, 30, had recently accepted a job in the Social Security Administration after working for the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington. Diana, 28, worked as a veterinary technician and sold crocheted children's caps through her website, “Loop Di Loop.”
“My daughter always wanted to be a mother, and that was what she was getting to do,” Baumann said.
Costley said her son couldn't have chosen a better wife.
“For Diana, it was always about the boys and her husband,” Costley said. “And Chris doted on his children because his own dad left when he was 9 years old. He made sure that he was the dad that he never had growing up.”
Costley said the Schmidts' sons “were out of their heads with joy” to find out they were going to be big brothers. Sam and Connor were eager to meet “Squishy,” their mother's nickname for the unborn child.
Costley said her son realized while stationed in Iraq that he couldn't stand to be separated from his family. He resigned from the Air Force after 10 years, she said, rather than be sent overseas again.
Baumann said his daughter also was active on CafeMom, an Internet site. He said his family has been touched by the “tremendous outpouring of support” from people all over the country who knew Diana via their Internet chats.
A memorial for the family is planned Sunday in a Rocklin, Calif., park, Baumann said. Balloons with messages tied to their strings will be released at 6 p.m. PDT. Other balloon releases are being organized by the couple's friends in several other states and in Europe.
“This whole thing has been a roller coaster of emotion for us all,” Baumann said. “I don't think we could get through it without all of the support we've received. It's amazing how many lives Diana and Chris touched all across the country.”
World-Herald staff writer Jay Withrow contributed to this report.