Lulu Keszler has been on an incredible journey of strength and recovery since a crash that nearly took her life—but she may still have a long road ahead of her.
And while the 27-year-old Southampton resident tries to remain positive, she can’t help but continue to blame the driver who nearly crippled her and took the life of her passenger, Charlotte Meyer, a 20-year-old au pair from Germany, in a head-on crash on Hill Street in Southampton Village on February 1, 2017.
“It happened, and he was the cause of it,” Ms. Keszler said of Jacob Alegria, the 28-year-old Southampton man who was acquitted in May of criminal charges in connection with the high-speed fatal crash on the residential street, where the speed limit is 25 mph. In court, Mr. Alegria’s defense focused on an undiagnosed brain disorder, and the possibility that he had suffered a seizure just before his Lexus SUV slammed into Ms. Keszler’s Audi as he traveled more than 70 mph in the wrong lane.
“Whether or not he had control, that’s another matter—but he still caused this,” said Ms. Keszler, who was thrown 300 feet from her vehicle in the violent crash after her seat belt snapped. “He’s the reason these injuries happened to me, and that I was in the hospital, and that I missed six weeks of my daughter’s life. I feel like, even for that, he needs to take responsibility for what he did.”
On the day of the crash, Mr. Alegria was seen speeding westbound out of Southampton Village, veering into the oncoming lane to pass slower vehicles, before crashing into Ms. Keszler’s vehicle after she turned onto Hill Street from Halsey Neck Lane.
Ms. Keszler, who was driving, was thrown from her vehicle by the impact of the crash, landing on a grass lawn, which may have saved her life. But she still suffered a collapsed lung, broken ribs, broken bones in her left arm, a shattered pelvis, a broken foot and a fractured knee. She also had massive internal bleeding, and her spine actually disconnected from her pelvis. Because of her injuries, her spleen was later removed.
Ms. Meyer, who had only been in the United States for a day, arriving to work for Ms. Keszler, was killed instantly from blunt force head trauma.
“People say all the time, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky’—which is a weird thing, because, yeah, I’m lucky that I’m alive, but I’m really unlucky because this happened,” Ms. Keszler said in an interview last week. “It’s just dumb luck. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yeah, I’m lucky—but I’m also not.”
After the accident, she was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital. While there, doctors were able to use surgical steel to repair her shattered and broken bones—her left arm was held together with metal plates, and her spine was reconnected to her pelvis with the help of rods, plates and bolts.
Ms. Keszler spent nearly three weeks at Stony Brook University Hospital after an initial eight-hour surgery, and then spent another three weeks at a New York University facility, where she was put through a very intensive physical and occupational therapy program.
At first, Ms. Keszler couldn’t move onto her side without experiencing excruciating pain, but as a result of a 3½-hour-per-day physical therapy program, she was able to start sitting up, standing up and getting from her bed and into a wheelchair. “It was hard, and it was a lot of work,” she said of the program. “But I needed it, because I couldn’t do anything.”
Overall, her physical recovery has been successful, Ms. Keszler said, but she has a difficult time remembering the events leading up to the crash. In fact, the last thing she recalls is having lunch with Ms. Meyer and a friend earlier that day.
Ms. Meyer had only just arrived in New York the night before and was going to stay with Ms. Keszler and her 27-year-old husband, Brendan Manley, at their Southampton Village home for two weeks. The Keszlers were looking for an au pair to help with babysitting because of their busy work schedules. As a real estate agent at Douglas Elliman, Ms. Keszler’s hours can be sporadic at times, making it difficult to hire a regular babysitter who could be available on a whim. So, an au pair seemed to be an ideal solution.
When Ms. Keszler and her husband interviewed Ms. Meyer, the trio hit it off. Ms. Meyer was independent, sweet, friendly, charming and charismatic, according to Ms. Keszler, witty enough to react quickly to Mr. Manley’s sense of humor.
Ms. Meyer had just returned from a year working as an au pair in Australia, where she sought out adventures such as skydiving and snorkeling with her friends.
Mr. Manley picked Ms. Meyer up after she flew into MacArthur Airport in Islip on January 31. Ms. Keszler planned to show her around Southampton the following day.
The next thing she remembers after having lunch was waking up at the hospital and being asked if she knew who she was, where she was, what day it was, and who the president was.
Doctors have told her the memory loss is likely a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the memories can return.
“I’m happy I don’t have flashbacks of horrible things. But, on the other hand, it’s also crazy, because it’s this huge day in my life that changed the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s strange that I don’t have any memory of it.”
Ms. Keszler was born on January 3, 1991, in Munich, Germany, to Stephan and Michaela Keszler. In 1994, the Keszlers moved to Southampton, where they lived for five years before moving back to Germany for the next five. In 2005, the family moved back to Southampton full time.
Shortly after coming back to the United States, Ms. Keszler enrolled in a boarding school in Newport, Rhode Island. When she would come home for visits, she said, she loved it, because she could ride her bike everywhere, including to the beach and on Main Street.
Ms. Keszler met her future husband just before her senior year. Mr. Manley was a student at Southampton High School, and the two met through a mutual friend.
Today, the couple have two children, Nadine, who is 2 years old, and Damian, who is just 4 weeks old. The couple plan to raise their children in Southampton.
One of Ms. Keszler’s concerns immediately after the accident was that she might not be able to have more children.
Despite a surgeon’s warning to hold off on getting pregnant for a year after the reconstructive surgery, Ms. Keszler was able to safely give birth to Damian naturally, although he came 4½ weeks early.
During the pregnancy, one of the metal plates used to stabilize Ms. Keszler’s arm became infected and needed to be removed. Doctors had to be careful about which drugs could be administered during the procedure, out of fear that they could harm the baby. After the surgery, she was placed on antibiotics, which, Ms. Keszler said, also may have presented some risk for the baby.
The birth was a testament to the strength Ms. Keszler found during her fight for her life nearly a year before.
“I’m strong and young and was able to get through this,” Ms. Keszler said, taking a moment to stress that she didn’t want to sound cocky—just grateful. “When my family first got to the hospital, the doctors didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. So, obviously, my injuries were very serious. Other people definitely would have died from them. Others wouldn’t have recovered the same way I was able to recover.
“I always knew that I could recover and do it,” she added.
“I feel horrible that this happened to her, in a place where she was basically anonymous,” Ms. Keszler said. “Nobody here knew her, met her, knows her name—nothing.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ms. Keszler found that, in her hometown, complete strangers would walk up to her and tell her they were happy to see her recovering.
“She didn’t have anything like that,” Ms. Keszler said of Ms. Meyer. “She had just gotten back from Australia and didn’t want to be stuck in her small town. She wanted to see places.”
At times, Ms. Keszler said she felt like the spokesperson for Ms. Meyer, especially since her family in Germany did not come to Mr. Alegria’s trial.
Mr. Alegria was indicted by a grand jury on charges of second-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault, both felonies, along with reckless endangerment and reckless driving, both misdemeanors.
At trial, Mr. Alegria’s defense was that he suffered a seizure just before the accident. The amount of medical evidence presented, focusing on an undiagnosed brain disorder, was enough to introduce reasonable doubt.
Multiple attempts over the past two weeks to reach Mr. Alegria through his attorney, Colin Astarita, were not returned.
As he read his verdict, Justice Fernando Camacho said evidence showed Mr. Alegria put the accelerator to the floor just before the crash, as a “black box” in the Lexus SUV recorded an increase in engine speed from 3,200 to 3,600 rotations per minute, indicating he was not in control of his actions.
Ms. Keszler, however, remains skeptical.
Before the case went to trial, Ms. Keszler said, she was undecided about what she wanted to see happen to Mr. Alegria. “My parents, obviously, as my parents, wanted him to go to jail and rot there forever,” she said. “For me, I was never sure.”
Ms. Keszler said she always assumed he would live with guilt for what he did, and that might be punishment enough for her injuries. But she always felt he needed to be punished for Ms. Meyer’s sake.
After accepting a settlement from Mr. Alegria’s insurance company to cover her medical expenses and vehicle damage, Ms. Keszler signed a form saying she would not sue him for any additional money, she said—so no civil suit is planned.
Ms. Keszler said she is grateful for her family’s support and that her work hours are flexible, so she can stay home with her two healthy children.
Still, she has injuries that may never heal. Her legs are different lengths, she has arthritis in one foot, the cartilage between her bones is gone, and she has a great deal of metal in her body, holding it together.
There is bitterness toward Mr. Alegria, who, she said, has never reached out to her.
“It’s not fair he didn’t receive any punishment,” Ms. Keszler said. “I was punished and continued to be punished, and will be for my whole life.”