Kelsey and Maria Tiberi, sisters born 14 months apart, did everything together. They had the same friends, dated guys only with each other’s approval, went on the same diets, worked at Buffalo Wild Wings together and lived together while students at Ohio State.
The longest time they spent apart was 10 days, when Maria went to Gulf Shores, Alabama, on vacation with a friend.
Until Sept. 17, 2013.
Maria was home in Dublin, Ohio, that night when Kelsey texted and asked her to come to Brothers, the bar where she worked a second job.
“Please come see me,” Kelsey told Maria. “We’re really dead and I want some company. I miss you.”
Maria said she would come, but that’s not what she told her father, Dom. She told him she was going to the library. He wouldn’t want her leaving so late.
Dom told her she should stay in. She had recently moved back under her parents’ roof instead of living on Ohio State’s campus. Maria still hadn’t cleaned her bathroom or unpacked her boxes like she promised.
She argued that since she was 21-years-old, she should have more freedom.
Dom surrendered. Maria’s family called her “the attorney” for a reason.
As Maria yanked open the door, her mother Terri called out, “I love you.”
“I love you more,” Maria replied, as she walked out the door.
It was 10:38 p.m.
Kelsey was closing the bar at 2:40 a.m. when her phone rang. She looked down and saw her father’s number.
“Kelsey, you need to come home now.”
“I can’t. I’m at work. I can’t just leave.”
“No, you really need to come home.”
She started to get worried and demanded he tell her why.
“Kelsey, I don’t know how to tell you this, but your sister got in an accident, a real bad accident, and she didn’t make it.”
He was so calm. She refused to believe him.
“What do you mean she didn’t make it?” Kelsey demanded. She repeated it over and over. She could not comprehend the words he was saying.
The next voice on the phone was Dublin Police Chief Heinz von Eckartsberg. He repeated the same news.
Shocked, Kelsey ran to the back office.
“I need to go,” she told her boss. “My sister just died. I need to go.”
Maria crashed into the back of a tractor trailer stopped in heavy traffic on I-270 south at 10:43 p.m., five minutes after she left home, less than three miles from her house. She was traveling about 50 miles an hour.
Maria was wearing a seatbelt and her phone was in her purse on the floor of the back seat, according to the police report. The cause of the accident: unknown distraction.
No one will ever know exactly what took Maria’s attention off the road.
It’s been two years since the accident. Two years of holidays and birthdays. Two years that her parents haven’t hugged their middle child. Two years that her siblings haven’t confided in their sister. Two years that her friends haven’t laughed with her. Two years that the people who knew and loved her have been living in a nightmare.
For Kelsey, she’s living without the one person she never thought she would.
In fact, when their mother’s sister was sick with a severe staph infection just a few weeks before Maria’s death, the girls contemplated what it would be like to lose each other. The thought reduced them to tears at the time.
Now Kelsey’s days are occupied with her full-time job as a receptionist at Ron Foth Advertising in Columbus, Ohio, bartending a couple nights a week, attending salsa dancing class and playing intramural volleyball. But every day, there is a void that cannot be filled, a gaping hole of absence and loss.
Pictures of Maria are scattered throughout Kelsey’s apartment — in the living room, the kitchen, in her bedroom on her dresser, nightstand, and underneath her TV. There used to be more out, but Kelsey took them down in an effort to move on.
“I don’t want to walk in my room and be constantly reminded all the time.”
Kelsey lives with her friend, Kinsey Carson in Grandview, Ohio. Kinsey works night shifts as a nurse, so Kelsey spends most of her time taking care of Marcella. She admits she got a dog for the company.
“I spend a lot of time alone now, and that’s hard. I get really emotional,” Kelsey said. “Sometimes I go and stay at my parent’s house for a week because I just can’t sit and be alone with my own thoughts.”
Marcella keeps Kelsey busy. Even when the puppy is chewing up her shoes and jumping on her, Kelsey has a smile on her face. It’s obvious she enjoys taking care of her.
Kelsey’s tendency to nurture is evident in every interaction. She greets nearly everyone as “babe” whether it’s her best friend or someone she met last week.
She nurtured Maria the most.
If Maria had an exam the next day, Kelsey was by her side all night at a library on campus, Red Bulls in hand.
Kelsey joked that without her, Maria would have been content eating cheese sandwiches with hot sauce every day. Kelsey made sure to take her to the grocery store.
In fact, Maria didn’t have a car, so Kelsey drove her most places or let Maria borrow her car.
“It seems so weird that today you don’t see them together because Maria just kind of followed Kelsey everywhere,” Dom recalled. “It’s like where there was one there was the other.”
Though Kelsey and Maria were mistaken as twins when they were toddlers, they grew into their own looks. Maria was 90 pounds, 4 feet, 11 inches with sable brown hair that fell to the middle of her back and almond shaped-eyes to match. These features, plus her olive skin, gave her a more classical Italian look than her older sister, who stands just a couple inches taller with hair dyed a spectrum of blonde. Kelsey, the self-proclaimed diva, has naturally dark roots that are rarely seen due to meticulous care.
The Tiberis built their lives in Dublin, Ohio. Growing up in an Italian household with a father who loves to cook, no one ever went hungry. Terri worked as a nurse, and Dom has been the sports anchor for WBNS-10TV, one of the largest news stations in Central Ohio, for 34 years. They raised three beautiful children.
Dom and Terri brought their kids up Catholic, but Maria’s death shook Kelsey’s beliefs.
“It makes you question your faith, everything you grew up believing in. Is there really a Heaven? Is there really a Hell? You don’t know, we will never know until our time comes.”
In the time leading up to Maria’s death, Dominic Jr. was in his freshman year at Rio Grande University, where he still plays baseball. Maria was studying graphic design at Ohio State where Kelsey had also been a student, until fall 2013 when she decided to take a semester off.
After the tragedy, Dom didn’t know if he could ever go on television again.
“I didn’t really care if I lived or died. My heart was broken. It’s still broken,” Dom said. “But for me to go back to work and make a paycheck, I was going to have to go back on the air.”
In the months after Maria’s death, Dom tried to find meaning in the tragedy. In February 2014, he established “Maria’s Message,” a public service campaign to educate teens and young adults about distracted driving. He brings Maria’s Message to high schools all over Central Ohio, spreading awareness about the dangers of distracted driving while encouraging defensive driving.
The Tiberis have also set up the Maria Tiberi Foundation, a nonprofit that provides an annual scholarship to a student with a passion for graphic design from her alma mater, Dublin Coffman High School. The Foundation’s main purpose is promoting defensive driving. According to the Foundation’s website, more than 90 percent of the money raised is used to purchase driving simulators, which are given to police departments and school districts to use in their distracted driving outreach programs.
The Tiberis have also held two annual “Maria’s Miles,” a 5K held in downtown Columbus during the Italian Festival in honor of Maria. The event is yet another way the family does whatever it takes to raise awareness about distracted driving. It’s also an opportunity for friends and family to come together.
Because Dom’s job as a reporter makes him recognizable by many, Maria’s death was far from a private matter for the Tiberi family. During the first week after her death, at least 30 friends and family were at the Tiberi household at all times. For Kelsey, it was a blessing and a curse.
“I have an overwhelming amount of love and support from people who don’t even know me,” she said. “I think that’s pretty amazing, and I’m very thankful for that. But at the same time it’s hard because I don’t get a lot of time to process it.”
Not all strangers are so kind. Some speculate Maria could have been texting or intoxicated when she died. What hurts Kelsey the most is when people accuse Dom of making money off his daughter’s accident.
“This is not about me, it’s not about my wife. I don’t want credit for anything,” Dom said. “I just want kids to quit dying needlessly. I don’t want any other families to go through this. [Other families] don’t have a voice and I do, and I feel like it’s almost my responsibility now to try and make a difference.”
Kelsey said even some that initially showed support to the Tiberis have faded into the background.
“This second year [after her death] was the hardest, because everybody’s there for the first birthday, the first Christmas. Now, it’s not that they’re not there, it’s just that it’s time to start moving on.”
If it were even possible for anyone to feel they had a bond with Maria comparable to the one Kelsey had, it was Sarah Lacca, a 23-year-old graduate student at Ohio Dominican whose goal is to teach English to non-native speakers. Her career path is not surprising given her personality. She’s a fast but articulate speaker, mature beyond her years — in part because of the tragedy of Maria’s death.
During Sarah’s sophomore year at Ohio State, she started working at the Buffalo Wild Wings near campus where she met Maria and Kelsey. Sarah admitted her first thought about Maria was, “She’s so pretty, like she might be mean.”
But Sarah was soon proven wrong.
“She was just the sweetest person. The same on the outside as the inside — more than I’ve ever seen in a person before. I don’t think she had any idea that she was that gorgeous.”
Even though they only knew each other for two and a half years, Sarah never felt closer to another person. They talked for hours about everything from boys, to past experiences with friends in high school, to the existence of God. Sarah and Maria both grew up Catholic, but they explored Buddhism and thoughts of the afterlife together for hours on end.
Along with their deep conversations, Sarah treasured Maria’s compassionate personality.
“If I had to put her in one word it was selfless, and she didn’t even do it on purpose; that was her nature,” Sarah said. “She will give you her last $5 for whatever you want. If you were in trouble, and she’s having a really bad day, she’s going to talk about your problems. She always had the most amazing advice.”
Both Sarah and Kelsey have had to learn to live without Maria’s constant reassuring presence.
Sarah said the situation has forced Kelsey to become a lot more independent, although it was difficult at first — and still is.
“Kelsey had to deal with being by herself. Especially when you’re grieving, it’s scary to be by yourself — you don’t want to cry, you don’t feel like it’s going to stop.”
Although Sarah praises Kelsey for being able to finish her degree, get a job and move on with her life, she’s also close enough to know the truth, at least part of it.
“There’s always going to be a certain sadness in her eyes because everyday she misses her sister.”
Others, however, think solely of Kelsey as a heroic, brave person who has gone through so much. Kelsey does not give herself the same credit.
“A lot of times I’m in situations where I have to present myself as though nothing is wrong and I’m happy and everything’s great — and a lot of times it’s not,” said Kelsey. “It’s kind of like one of those things: I fake it until I make it.”
She struggles with being defined by her sister’s death.
“As much as I love my sister and care so much about her and miss her, it’s just so hard. People hear ‘Kelsey Tiberi’ and they either know me because of my dad or because ‘We’re so sorry about your sister.’”
Though Kelsey and Sarah have had to spend the last two years without their best friend, both have received signs making them believe Maria’s not too far away.
For Sarah it was a dream the week Maria died. She had spent the night crying, so desperately did she want to see her friend again. In her dream, she was in a big, green field with rolling hills. Maria came up to her.
“She was smiling and really happy, and I asked her, ‘Can you hear me?,’” Sarah recalled.
“And [Maria is] like, ‘Yeah, I hear everything.’”
“She said, ‘Please keep writing,’ because I had been writing in a journal to her … I start with, ‘Dear Maria,’ every time so I can tell her about my day and tell her about what’s going on in life.”
“And she said, ‘Keep writing,’ which was really cool, and then I said, ‘Do you miss me? I miss you so much.’ And I was crying in my dream. And I was freaking out, like saying ‘I miss you, I miss you.’”
In the dream, Maria tells her, “I’m so sorry, it was an accident. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.”
Maria took Sarah’s hand in the dream and they ran through the grass until Maria stopped and hugged her. Sarah could feel Maria’s body — her hair and everything.
“[Maria] said, ‘You’ll always be mine,’ and that was it.”
It was during the Tiberis’ annual family vacation to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the first without Maria, that Kelsey received her sign. On the drive home, Dom made his family stop at an outlet to buy cigars as he does every year.
Kelsey just wanted to get home, but grudgingly went inside. She grabbed a Diet Coke from the cooler, and when she turned it around there was a name. Maria.
Although Maria will never be able to go on another family vacation, Maria’s loved ones keep marching forward, dealing with the void as best as they know how — for themselves and for Maria.
Dom continues to spread the message of defensive driving in an effort to spare other parents his same pain.
Sarah is almost finished with her first year of graduate school, one step closer to her dream career.
And Kelsey will keep working her way up at an award-winning advertising agency, living life the way her sister would want her to.
“‘[Maria] doesn’t get the opportunity to finish school,” Kelsey said. “She doesn’t get the opportunity to go pick out a wedding dress. She doesn’t get the opportunity to do all of these things that I’m going to be able to do, so why would I sit at home and waste my time sitting around sulking and feeling sorry for myself?”