The light was green. Yijing Chen remembers it clearly. What happened next was a blur of noise and pain, a nightmare that changed her life forever.
It was June 5, 2016, a sleepy Sunday night in Calabasas, California, north of Malibu. Chen, a Pepperdine MBA student, and her mother, Hongfen Shen, were walking hand-in-hand to the grocery store, a trip they’d made often during the mother’s visit from China. They stepped into the crosswalk along Las Virgenes Road, walking south across the on-ramp to the Ventura Highway.
They were halfway across when they were hit by the truck.
The 2015 Chevy Silverado was black, which may have made it harder to see at 8:30 p.m. on a quiet Calabasas night. Chen doesn’t remember the impact so much as the sound — “a noise like an engine” — and the feeling of her mother’s hand being ripped from her own. At the same time she herself was violently flung to the pavement.
“I was pulled beneath the bumper of a huge truck and run over,” Chen remembers. “I watched as the truck’s wheels crushed my mum beneath them two to three times more. I will never get that image out of my head.”
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Chen had just completed her first year at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, where she concentrated in Finance and Digital Information and Information Systems. A native of Hangzhou, China, she planned on a career as an analyst for an investment bank and had chosen Pepperdine over the University of Texas-Dallas because of scholarships — Pepperdine offered about $80,000, all but a few thousand of the total — as well as rank, study-abroad opportunities, and because Southern California appealed to her more than Texas.
Chen’s mother — her only family in her hometown, as her father had died in 2014 — came in April 2016 for a lengthy visit that was scheduled to end in August. It took all of Chen’s financial aid to help her mother with the move. “We didn’t have much, but we were so happy to be together again,” she says. They vacationed together that spring in San Diego, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, snapping smiling photos everywhere they went.
But they also enjoyed doing more routine things, going to parks and malls and supermarkets. They went everywhere together, Chen says. They were best friends.
On June 5, 2016, they were on their way to get groceries at Albertson’s. “We held hands,” Chen says, “because we were best friends and loved each other so much.”
‘I WAS SCREAMING AND CRYING, TRYING TO GET TO MY MUM’
Police would later say, after a yearlong investigation, that the driver of the truck that hit Yijing Chen and Hongfen Shen was neither drunk nor on drugs. She had not been on her cell phone. All these things might have worsened her eventual punishment. Instead, they concluded, she had been distracted by her dog.
The truck hit Shen full-on, dragging her under its wheels. Her torso was crushed, damaged so badly that a doctor later told Chen he had never seen such terrible internal bleeding. Shen, 53, would die in the hospital five days later.
Chen was clipped by the truck’s rear bumper, fracturing her left leg. She later learned that her leg bone was protruding from her thigh, but at the time she was so in shock that she didn’t realize the extent of her own injury. “The truck drove over us,” Chen remembers, “and finally stopped. I was screaming and crying, trying to get to my mum, who was not conscious. I saw a woman get out of the truck, and I thought she was going to help us, to help my mum. But she did not. Instead, she screamed at us, ‘Why you guys were here?’ I was shocked and I begged her, ‘Please help my mommy! Please! Call 9-1-1! PLEASE!’ But she did not.
“I tried to get up and walk to my mum, but my legs would not work. I did not know it then, but my bone was coming out of my leg, and I collapsed. So I dragged myself with my hands across the road to my mum.”