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Survival story turns tragic with young mother's death

A month after a North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper rescued a Georgia woman and her four young children from their burning minivan, the woman was found dead in her home.

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DUNN, N.C. — A young Georgia mother gained national attention last month after a North Carolina state trooper rescued her and her children from a burning minivan.

Now, the family of Jessica White DePriest is grappling with her sudden death after she choked on a bologna sandwich last week.

A relative who stopped by DePriest's home in Hinesville, Ga., on Oct. 13 found the 24-year-old veteran of the Iraq war dead on the floor.

The night before, she had put her children to bed and called a friend to bring over something to eat, said her adoptive mother, Janice White, who lives in Dunn.

The waxy red tape was still on the edge of the bologna sandwich when DePriest took a bite, White said.

"When they did the autopsy, they said that's what it was, and they said that's why she couldn't get the bologna out of her throat," she said.

On Sept. 9, DePriest and her children were headed to Hinesville from White's home when engine trouble forced her to the shoulder of Interstate 95 near Lumberton.

Trooper Alan Humphrey stopped to help, and he discovered the minivan's engine was on fire. As the flames quickly spread, Humphrey pulled 18-month-old triplets Raychel, Rebekah and Kalob and 2½-year-old Jakob from the vehicle.

A passing driver used a fire extinguisher to slow the flames enough for Humphrey to get the family to safety before the minivan's gas tank exploded.

"I told (Humphrey), I said, 'You're an angel sent from God,'" White said.

The episode and the subsequent acclaim that followed DePriest and Humphrey left the young mother in shock, White said.

"She said, 'Why did God allow this to happen to me?'" White said. "I said, 'Honey, I don't think of it that way. I think of it as, wasn't God good to save you and all four of the babies?'"

Sharon Hawes, DePriest's adoptive sister, said she wonders if the minivan fire was a warning sign.

"She said, 'What would you do with the babies if I go (to heaven)?'" Hawes said.

DePriest's husband, Army Spc. Patrick DePriest, has since returned home from Iraq and is caring for the children with help from his mother, who also lives in Georgia.

"They know Mommy is not here," Hawes said of her nieces and nephews.

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Bryan Mims, Reporter
Michael Joyner, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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