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Posted on Mon, Jun. 28, 2004

Family set to bring crash victim back to San Jose.

Mercury News

Four weeks after a horrific accident in Utah put newlywed Tara Eichinger Berendes into a coma, her family is preparing to bring her home to San Jose, where longtime friends hope to expand the circle of support around her and her new husband.

In recent days, Berendes has opened her eyes, is smiling ever so slightly and occasionally gives a faint squeeze to husband Josh's hand.

The movements are hopeful signs that the 20-year-old woman, married 10 days before the accident, is waking from her long slumber. She is still clinically comatose, say doctors in Salt Lake City where she has been hospitalized since the June 1 car crash. But her physical condition was recently upgraded from critical to stable, giving her family and friends the best news they've heard in days.

``The doctors say she is doing all those things involuntarily, that there is no definite indication of cognitive activity,'' said her father, John Eichinger, of Monte Sereno. ``But we, her family, want to believe it really is her smiling and squeezing our hand. It might be wishful thinking, but it's something to hold on to.''

Since the accident, a far-reaching circle of supporters from Utah and Colorado to California have embraced the newlyweds, who met at Los Gatos' Calvary Baptist Church.

The widow of the Salt Lake City man who was killed when his car slammed into the Berendeses' sport-utility vehicle invited Eichinger to her home to share dinner with her 3-year-old and 6-month-old daughters, now without a father.

Susan Goodman, whose husband, Thad, died at the crash on Interstate 15 near Salt Lake City, initiated special prayers for Tara Berendes at her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She also has asked anyone wishing to donate money to her and the girls to instead give to Tara Berendes' recovery fund.

Colorado supporters, most of whom hardly know the couple, will hold a golf tournament next month in Parker, Colo., to raise funds. The Berendeses were heading to Colorado to start a new life when the crash occurred.

Eichinger's search for a San Jose-area transitional facility for his daughter also led to a remarkable stroke of coincidence. While meeting with officials at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which will coordinate her care, he learned that she had played basketball with the daughter of hospital director Susan G. Murphy and her husband, Jim Murphy, who is the facility's director of managed care. Jim Murphy, in fact, had coached the girls' basketball team.

``Tara was a tough competitor on the basketball court. She's got a fighting spirit, and we'll be here to cheer her on now,'' Jim Murphy said.

So will the young couple's many friends from Calvary Baptist Church and the Los Gatos community.

``It will be great to have her here so we can visit her and give them both support,'' said Tara Berendes' good friend Jill Yoder. ``But it will be hard to see her because of her condition. A lot of her friends from church made her a video and sent it to the hospital. We talked about the fun times we all had together.''

After marrying May 22 in Monte Sereno, the newlyweds packed their gifts and on May 30 headed for Littleton, Colo., he to be a youth pastor, she to study psychology.

On the afternoon of June 1 as Tara Berendes drove the couple's small SUV near Salt Lake City, Thad Goodman's car, traveling in the opposite direction, lost control and shot across the median, hitting them head-on. The cause of the accident remains under investigation.

Josh Berendes was able to work himself free after suffering moderate injuries, but his wife was pinned in her seat as the car burst into flames. She not only suffered brain damage and some internal injuries, but the blond who once modeled also has facial burns.

On Friday, doctors performed skin-grafting surgery on her face. Possibly by week's end, when she heals from that, she could be discharged from University Hospital in Salt Lake City to a San Jose sub-acute facility.

She remains on a respirator and is being fed by a tube. No one knows the long-term effects of her brain injury, her father said.

Tall at 6-foot-3, and slender and bubbly, Tara Berendes was a standout basketball player in high school, had a gifted singing voice and played the French horn. But she took her church work seriously. She helped counsel junior high students with problems.

``She was kind of like a mommy, arms always open,'' said Yoder, who met Tara at Calvary. ``You always felt comfortable telling her anything.''

Josh Berendes is more reserved, but liked that his wife was spontaneous and outgoing. Since the accident, he rarely leaves her bedside at University Hospital, constantly searching her face for a new gesture or touching her arm in hopes of getting a response.

Josh Berendes, 23, who grew up in San Jose, was going to be a youth pastor in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and would also work at Home Depot there. His wife was to pursue a master's in psychology. Now, they will turn their focus back to San Jose.

``Tara is such a strong, determined person,'' said her older sister, Heather Eichinger of Campbell. ``When she sets her mind to something, she dedicates herself completely. Once she realizes she needs to get better, she's going to do it as quickly as possible.''


For more information, go to www.tarajosh.com for ways to help and donate.

Josh and Tara Berendes have no health insurance and face a mountain of medical bills. Anyone who interested in helping out is asked to send checks payable to:
     Tara Eichinger-Berendes Recovery Fund
     c/o Wells Fargo Bank 
     299 South Main St
     Salt Lake City, UT 84111. 

Mercury News Staff Writer Chuck Carroll contributed to this report. Contact Connie Skipitares at cskipitares@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5647.

email: info@tarajosh.com