Following Tragedy, Dom Tiberi is Sharing Maria's Message

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From the July/August 2014 issue of Capital Style

Maria Tiberi was excited when she called her father that Sunday night in September—the kind of warm fall evening ripe for enjoying.

“I got a new pumpkin beer I want you to try,” she told him, promising to wait up for his late-night arrival. “How about we build a bonfire and smoke a cigar?”

Dom Tiberi, the longtime sports anchor for WBNS-10TV, agreed to the backyard date with his college daughter. But his weekend show, Wall to Wall Sports, kept him at the studio longer than expected.

Still, when he walked into his Dublin home well past midnight, there was his Maria—the 4’11” spitfire, the free-spirited sweetheart, the pretty tomboy, the hippie, the fisherman, the goofball, the singer, the adventurer.

“How about we do it another time,” Dom asked, exhausted. “I’m pretty tired.”

Two nights later, Maria, a Dublin Coffman grad and Ohio State student who had recently moved back in with her parents, returned from a waitressing shift at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Powell. She showered, and then announced plans to head out.

“I’m going to the library to study with a group,” she said.

It was a lie. She was actually headed Downtown to Brothers Bar & Grill, where her sister, an Ohio State student working her own serving gig, was bored on a slow night. Maria wanted to keep her company.

Dom didn’t know that, of course, but argued anyhow.

It’s too late, he told her. Just stay home.

Maria was a stubborn baby (her mother labored 24 hours to birth her) who grew into a headstrong kid dubbed “The Attorney.” And she wasn’t shying from an argument with her overly protective dad tonight.

“You promised if I moved back you’d give me freedom,” she pleaded. “I won’t be long.”

Despite their mutual irritation, Dom told his daughter he loved her.

And her mother called out to her as she walked away.

“I love you baby girl,” Terri Tiberi said.

“I love you more, Mom.”

The door closed behind her.

It was 10:38 p.m.

Five minutes later, Maria—the tiny 21-year-old who investigators say was not talking or texting on her phone, and whose system was clear of drugs and alcohol—slammed into the back of a semi stopped in construction traffic on the Outerbelt.

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Dom sat in the leather recliner he has long called his worry chair, looking at photos on the wall of his three kids.

At 2:25 a.m., he heard a car door slam.

Thank God, he thought. She’s home.

Two minutes later, the doorbell rang. Five times. Quickly.

Dom stood up and wandered down the hallway, confused.

Seven police officers stood at his door, including Dublin Chief Heinz von Eckartsberg—a buddy. Beside him Dom noticed, an officer wore a chaplain button.

“What’s going on, Heinz?” Dom asked.

“Dom,” he said, “does Maria drive a red car?”

“Yeah,” Dom replied.

“I don’t know what to tell you, but Maria was in a horrible accident,” the chief said. “And she didn’t survive.”

Dom stood, frozen, as Terri, startled, rushed down the stairs.

“Don’t tell me it was Maria,” she said. “Don’t tell me it was Maria.”

Behind them, down a hallway, inside the fridge, sat bottles of fresh pumpkin beer, never drunk.

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Visitors drove to the calling hours en masse—almost 5,000 of them—to pay their respects. Boxes worth of letters poured in. When Dom returned to work the next week, covering Ohio State’s win over Wisconsin, the football players hugged him, one by one. And when a video of that went viral, notes popped into his inbox and on his Facebook page from around the world.

“It makes you feel good about mankind—that people care that much,” Dom said, choking up. “I just feel more obligated than ever to them now.”

And now, he is a father on a mission, and with a message.

Auto accidents are the number-one killer of people ages 11 to 27, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In America, the group also says, someone dies in an auto crash every 16 minutes.

Not wanting Maria to be just a statistic, Dom reached out to law enforcement: What did he need to champion? The answer was clear: distracted driving. Too many people are on their cell phones, reading their newspapers and putting on makeup at the wheel.

Investigators in Maria’s case ruled “a momentary lapse of attention or an unknown distraction” the probable cause of her crash.

Dom launched Maria’s Message—a campaign to remind people to keep their hands on the wheel, their eyes on the road and their minds on the drive. He speaks to high school and college students, telling Maria’s story and asking people to sign a defensive-driving pledge that about 8,000 have now signed. He also started Maria’s Foundation, which will provide scholarships and hopefully buy distracted driving simulators for high schools.

“It’s our mission in life,” Dom said. “I want the other folks in our boat to know they have an advocate now.”

Mike Ulring, Maria’s high school principal and a Tiberi family friend, said when 900 Dublin Coffman juniors and seniors gathered to listen to Dom, they were captivated.

“You could hear a pin drop,” he said. “We had just had another (car crash) death in our school, not long before he came and talked to our kids. It hit home pretty hard.”

It’s a powerful message, echoed Grove City High School Principal Mike Starner—especially when it comes from someone other than kids’ own parents.

Dom spoke to nearly 2,000 students and staff in Starner’s gymnasium—just before prom.

“Dom’s a community resource,” Starner said. “And when he can deliver something that was so personal and so close to him and make it real and meaningful for students, it just has a tremendous impact.”

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Dom awoke one night in a terror—panicked, sweating, screaming.

“What’s wrong?” Terri asked.

“Did this happen?” Dom said. “Is it real?”

The grief, he says, is debilitating.

While he has found solace in work, Terri, who spent her career in the medical field, has been unable to return to it.

Maria, of course, is everywhere—smiling from inside the frame on the mantle, singing with her sister on a Facebook video, living on in doodles on the bottoms of every coaster in the living room.

For six months after the crash, Dom paid her cell phone bill and sent her texts. He wonders whether he should have argued harder that night, forced her to stay. Guilt haunts him. He often feels stuck in a coma.

When he falls asleep—if he falls asleep—he dreams of her.

“Your mind,” he said, “can be your worst enemy.”

In June, Dom stood behind Gov. John Kasich—who lost his parents in a 1987 car accident—as the governor signed a bill designating September as Safe Driving Awareness Month in Maria’s honor.

Dom is grateful that his job gives him a voice. And while he knows it can’t bring back his little girl, he hopes it can save another parent his pain.

“Everyone says if you’ve saved one life, you’ve done great,” he said. “And I go no, no, no. I want to save them all.”