Blind World Magazine

Blind woman talks of hit and run, and losing her guide dog.

October 08, 2005.
Durham Herald Sun - Durham,NC.

CHAPEL HILL -- She thought she was sleeping and soon she would wake up from the terrible dream she was having.

It wasn't a dream, and as the hours passed, Danielle Iredale, a young blind woman, slowly came to realize as she was being treated at a hospital emergency room that she had been hurt somehow and that her beloved Seeing Eye dog, Inka, had been killed.

Iredale, who says she goes by the name of Aoife, spoke Friday from her hospital room about the hit-and-run crash in which a driver ran off the road and struck her and Inka as they waited for a bus in Carrboro Wednesday morning. The driver, identified by police as Stephen Coffee, 27, of 180 BPW Club Road, F-14, Carrboro, has been charged with driving while impaired, hit and run, felony harming an assistance animal, driving with a revoked license, resisting arrest and injury to property. A bond hearing was held Friday, but his bond remained at $25,000 secured.

Iredale, 22, suffered wounds to her head, legs and arm. However, she had recovered sufficiently that she was scheduled to be released from UNC Hospitals Friday.

As Iredale spoke from a wheelchair, her parents and grandparents stood nearby. She grew tearful and angry when she thought about the accident. She said she can't believe someone would have killed her dog and kept on driving.

"I would have a lot less anger if it had just been me there because there's no excuse for a hit and run in any circumstances," she said.

"He hit a dog in the harness and he drove away and left her to die," Iredale said as she wiped away the tears. "I'm really upset that I couldn't be there for her."

The day had begun like any other, she recalled. Inka, a German Shepherd Seeing Eye dog, greeted her when she woke up in her Carrboro apartment, and she spent a little extra time with him, rubbing his belly, hugging him and scratching his ear. They were going to Duke Hospital via the bus.

The last thing she remembers was being at the bus stop on BPW Club Road after having just put the harness back on Inka. It was quiet. Contrary to a witness's observations, Iredale's parents said she was not wearing headphones as she waited for the bus.

"The next thing I remember was being put into an ambulance," Iredale said. "I thought I was having a bad dream. I kept thinking I was still asleep and waiting to get up that morning."

A neighbor of Iredale's, who was at the bus stop with her, reported that a car crossed the street, came up on the sidewalk and hit Iredale and Inka, sending them both flying. Iredale was unconscious at first and slowly came to, she said. Inka lay dead on the ground.

It wasn't until she was in the emergency room at UNC Hospitals that she heard someone say that her dog had died in the accident. "I started crying, but it didn't feel real," she said. "It took me a while to realize what had happened. It still doesn't feel really real."

In the hospital, she kept thinking that Inka was lying at the foot of her bed until she reminded herself of what happened.

Iredale, who lost her sight when she was a baby being treated for cancer, never thought she wanted a guide dog. She got around with her cane in high school and said she felt pretty independent. She wasn't a dog lover and imagined a guide dog would drag her around and periodically stop to visit a fire hydrant.

But she agreed to go to the Seeing Eye school and give it a try. One day, they announced that they had a dog for her. When she met Inka, he stuck his tongue out and gave her a little lick on her chin, she said.

"That was love at first sight," Iredale recalled.

She and Inka moved south from Pennsylvania so she could attend UNC. They worked as a team, and when Inka was in the harness, he was all business. She'd map out the routes, and Inka guided her through the route, making sure to carefully take her around obstacles and watch for cars as they crossed streets.

"You have to have this really intense communication between the dog and the owner," Iredale said. "Inka was an amazing worker. We used to joke she had German precision engineering because she was a German Shepherd."

Inka had another side to her personality, too. When she was off the harness, she was playful and loved to chase tennis balls around the apartment. "She learned to kick them to me so I knew where they were," Iredale said.

Iredale was eager to go home, partially so she could begin the grieving process for Inka.

Because of the damage to her legs, she'll have to use crutches for a while, which means she won't be able to use a cane to get around or begin training with another dog. She was scheduled to begin a teaching job in November and hopes the school will allow her some extra time before she starts.

"I can't get another dog until I'm healed," she said. But "I am going to get another dog."

A number of people have called and said they'd like to donate money to help her buy a new dog, she said. Iredale said she doesn't know how to handle that type of fund and doesn't want to do it poorly. She said she would be able to buy another dog from Seeing Eye for $150.

"If anything good can come out of this, I want it to be community awareness about guide dogs and the work they do and how wonderful they are," Iredale said.

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