Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
It has been 20 years since the death of Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) student Angela Baird (1978-1997), a pro-life leader at the Santa Paula, California school who was killed in a tragic hiking accident in 1997. Angela, 19, was on a nighttime hike with her fellow students in the Los Padres National Forest, which the college borders. She lost her footing on a trail and fell around 70 feet, breaking both legs, an arm, her back and pelvis, as well as suffering from massive internal injuries and bleeding.
Remarkably, she remained conscious after the fall, albeit in tremendous pain. She offered her sufferings “for the aborted babies” as she awaited rescue. She died in surgery at 1:00 a.m. the next day.
Jonathan Daly, a TAC graduate who is today the college’s director of admissions, was a fellow student at the time and on the trail directly behind Angela when she fell, and was the first to find her, hold her hand and pray with her as she lay dying. He was also roommate at the time to Angela’s older brother, Joe. He recently shared his memories of the unhappy day.
What was Angela like?
She was a lively, spunky, good-hearted, deep and loving young lady. She had completed her first year at TAC, and had settled into the college community.
As her sophomore year had begun, she decided to start a pro-life group on campus. Its purpose would be to pray at an abortion clinic. We had had pro-life groups in the past, but not one that consistently went to a clinic.
She had a background in this kind of pro-life involvement. In high school in Spokane, she had decided that praying in front of clinics was something she wanted to do. She got her parents’ permission, and began to take public transportation from her home to pray at an abortion clinic. I’d say for a young high school girl to come up with that on her own was unusual! She wasn’t recruited by a group, but went entirely on her own.
So she started the same thing at TAC. She got a group of four to seven of us to go with her to a Family Planning Associates clinic in Ventura. We’d pray the Rosary on the sidewalk alongside a busy street; I recall that Angela would attempt to speak to people coming out of the clinic. We’d pray the entire 15 mysteries of the Rosary (at least there were 15 at that time). She really was a pro-life leader among the students.
She was also involved in prison ministry.
Yes. She taught catechism to female inmates, and helped them prepare for the sacraments. She made some strong connections at the prison.
What do you remember about the night of her death?
About 20 or 30 students headed out on an overnight camping trip. The campsite was about an hour and a half hike from the college. Some had headed out in the late afternoon, the rest of us after dark about 6:30 p.m. As I recall, we were waiting for Angela to finish her kitchen shift.
Even though it was dark, we had been on that trail many times before. No one thought that it might be dangerous.
Rain had washed away a portion of the trail where Angela fell. We got to that point. I was in the rear of our group, with Angela in front of me. There is a bend in the trail, so the group had slowed down. Angela stopped and turned around, perhaps to say something to me. She stepped backwards, slipped and fell. I saw her fall. It didn’t occur to me how bad it was until a few seconds later when I heard her land. I realized we were right next to a cliff. We didn’t know how close to the edge we were.
This was a fall of 70 feet, straight down onto rock. There was nothing along the way to break her fall.
This was in the age before cell phones, so I yelled to the guys that someone needed to run back to the college for help. Two guys ran back, one had a minor injury along the way which slowed him down. It took the other about 45 minutes to reach the campus.
I knew a shortcut to get down to Angela. I took it and found her. She was conscious and awake, holding one hand up to me. It was shocking that she was awake and alert, considering what had just happened to her.
I took her hand and asked if she could hear me. She squeezed it. We began praying. Meanwhile, other people came down with blankets and we did what we could to keep her warm and comfortable.
After what must have been at least an hour and a half, two rescue crews came. One hiked in. The other was brought by helicopter.
What did Angela say to you as she lay there?
She never complained. She never cried out in pain. We prayed the Rosary, and she prayed with us. After a while, because she had lost a lot of blood, it was difficult for her to stay conscious and respond. That morning we had talked about Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernadette; I told her to imagine Our Lady in the grotto of the movie “The Song of Bernadette” was there. She loved that movie.
When it became clear to us that she might be dying, I asked her what she wanted to pray for. She mentioned two things. The first, and these were her exact words, was “for the aborted babies.” The other was for her father, who had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. She came from a family of 10 children that was very close. She was very close to her dad.
It was sometime around then that the paramedics came. We hiked out, got in the car and headed to the hospital. I remember the assistant dean of the college came. We talked to the doctors, and they thought she would live. They got her into surgery, though, and her heart stopped while she was on the operating table. They did the best they could to revive her, but they couldn’t.
How do you recall her death impacting the campus?
The day after she died the whole school went down to the abortion clinic where she prayed. Our student body at the time was about 220, and some students were away during a three-day break, but I’d say about 150 to 200 students turned out. Her death really galvanized the students and got us out on the sidewalk praying. Six years later, on the anniversary of the day she died, a group came to pray at that same clinic. There was a moving truck there. It was closing.
We had a memorial service for Angela on campus. It was difficult, but beautiful and moving. About 10 of us went up for her funeral in Spokane. (To read a letter Jonathan presented to the Baird family at Angela’s funeral, visit http://bairds.net/angela/jondaly.html).
I think that the whole experience made us all take a deeper look at life, and focus on what is important. It had a deep and lasting impact on us all.
I’ve often thought about how she spent her last hours on Earth. It was striking. It was a sign of a deep grace and peace in her soul. As I said, she didn’t complain or cry out. She lived her life in those last hours for everyone but herself.
Tell me about the memorial placed on the spot where she fell.
One of the students on campus, who is today a priest, went to the woodshop and built a cross with a memorial plaque. It’s probably eight feet tall and four feet across. We took turns carrying it up the trail and planted it in the ground.
How has this experience impacted you, as you look back on it 20 years later?
It has caused me to take life much more seriously. When you lose a friend in such a completely unexpected way, it makes you refocus on things.
It’s also made the Communion of Saints more real to me. She died a very holy death, and I believe she is in heaven. It makes you realize the saints are real people like Angela, not just characters in stories you read about. I know people, in fact, who pray to Angela and have had those prayers answered.
The whole thing was incredibly tragic. But the good Lord gave her a peaceful death and has used her as an instrument of his grace.