Sanford, N.C. — Exactly one year ago, Robert Leffer survived a fiery wreck on Interstate 40 in Raleigh that burned 80 percent of his body and nearly killed him.
The 49-year-old Sanford resident has undergone numerous surgeries and has more to come, but he is recovering.
On Jan. 26, 2009, doctors said Leffer probably had 48 hours to live. No one imagined that one year later he'd be alive and an inspiration to many.
Leffer was driving a garbage truck along Interstate 40 near Wade Avenue when, authorities say, Osmar Guillermo Perez Vicente, then 28, cut across multiple lanes of traffic in his SUV, spurring a chain reaction of collisions. Leffer's truck flipped, landed in the woods and burst into flames.
"His head was on fire, his back, his boots, everything," said witness Clay Roberson, who used his own shirt to put out the flames on Leffer.
Since then, Leffer has had five surgeries and a nine-month stay at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill followed by daily physical and occupational therapy.
"Sometimes I felt like I wanted to just give up," Leffer said. "If I gave up, I'd just be useless."
He pushed through the pain and was able to go home for Christmas. Friends, local businesses and fire departments across Lee County banded together to make the Christmas homecoming special for the entire Leffer family.
Leffer's wife, Amalia, and 2-year-old son Robert, spent most of their time in Chapel Hill to be near him as he recovered. All three were greeted in Sanford by a parade of fire trucks lining the way to their home at 1714 Riddle Road.
When they walked in the door, they saw a Christmas tree and gifts provided by volunteers and donations from the fire department, church groups and neighbors. A local furniture store pitched in to refurnish the Leffers' house, including a new, "big boy" bed for Robert, who had been sleeping in a crib.
"It means a lot. So much support, so many caring people," Leffer said. "I wasn't supposed to be alive, but I made it. I'm with my family. I'm here to see my little boy grow up!"
Vicente was charged with reckless driving with wanton disregard. He pleaded down to reckless driving to endanger and received 21 days of community service. He then was granted 21 days credit for times served.
Vicente was also charged with operating without a license. He pleaded guilty and received 21 days of community service. Again, he was granted 21 days credit for time served.