Jacqueline Saburido, who became the face of campaigns against drunken driving after she was severely burned in a wreck 20 years ago, died Saturday of cancer in Guatemala, according to her family.
She was 40.
Saburido’s cousin, José Saburido, said she had moved from her native Caracas, Venezuela, to Guatemala City several years ago to gain better access to medical treatment and medicines.
José Saburido said Jacqui also had been undergoing facial reconstruction surgery in Miami, receiving skin grafts to form new eyelids, lips and a nose. In more recent years, though, she had been devoting her energies to fighting cancer.
In her role as a motivational speaker and anti-drunken-driving spokeswoman, Saburido inspired hope among a legion of followers across the globe. Her story of recovery from a fiery wreck near Austin, Texas, in 1999 was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s television show and an Austin American-Statesman special section called “Chasing Hope.”
As news of her death spread on social media, people from across Texas and the world paid their respects. A high school teacher in Wichita Falls, Texas, said she continues to teach Saburido’s story to her students. A Galveston, Texas, woman said Saburido had inspired her to become a burn nurse. Twitter messages in Italian, French and Portuguese lamented her death.
“She was an example to follow,” José Saburido said Monday from Caracas.
He said arrangements are being made to fly his cousin’s body back to Venezuela. “Her final wish was to be buried next to her mother,” he said. Her mother died in 2006 after battling against cancer.
Saburido was a beautiful, 20-year-old woman from a wealthy family, studying English in Austin and taking a break from engineering classes at a university in Caracas, Venezuela, when tragedy struck on the night of Sept. 19, 1999. After a party on Lake Travis, she and three friends caught a ride with a young Russian student back into Austin about 4 a.m.
At the same time, Reggie Stephey, an 18-year-old student at Lake Travis High School, was driving home from another party in Austin. He had been drinking.
On a curve along RM 2222, Stephey’s 1996 GMC Yukon SUV plowed into the car carrying Saburido and her friends. The crash killed the driver, Natalia Chyptchak Bennett, and Laura Guerrero, a 20-year-old University of Texas student from Colombia. Two other passengers were pulled from the wrecked car as it burst into flames.
Saburido, trapped in the front passenger seat, burned for nearly a minute before paramedics could put out the fire. Horrific burns covered nearly her entire body, except for the bottom of her legs and feet. She spent months at a Galveston burn unit, undergoing skin grafts and emergency surgeries. One by one her lips, ears and nose fell off. Her eyes were sewn shut so they wouldn’t dry out. The dead bone of her fingers was amputated.
Her father, Amadeo, became her caregiver, shuttling his only child to countless doctor appointments, massaging her scars, brushing her teeth and applying eyedrops in the middle of the night. She eventually underwent more than 120 surgeries.
In June 2001, a jury found Stephey guilty of two counts of intoxication manslaughter and sentenced him to seven years in prison. During the trial, Saburido asked to meet with Stephey; she told Stephey she forgave him. He served every year of his sentence before being released in June 2008. Throughout his prison stint, he collaborated with Saburido on the drunken-driving campaign, filming public service announcements and speaking to high schools.
The story of Saburido’s injuries, and her valiant efforts to overcome them and tell her story, seized the public imagination. In May 2002, the American-Statesman published a 16,000-word special section, called “Chasing Hope,” detailing Saburido’s story.
The section was reproduced more than 200,000 times and was distributed to high school students throughout the state. Her story became the subject of an anti-drunken driving campaign by the Texas Department of Transportation, featuring videos, posters and a dramatic public service announcement showing Saburido slowly lowering a photograph of her pretty, unburned face to reveal her disfigured countenance.
She was featured in safety campaigns from Texas to Australia, and her scarred face was used to persuade a generation of Texas high school students not to drink and drive. In 2009, she made her second appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as the talk show host counted down her most memorable guests of the past 25 years.
Saburido “helped shift our thinking about what it really means to be beautiful,” Winfrey said on the show. “It’s so easy for people to talk about inner beauty; it’s another thing to live it.”
For Saburido, appearing a second time on Winfrey’s show was a thrill. “Not everyone can say they were” one of Oprah’s most memorable guests, she said at the time. “It was very cool to be there.”
As for her role in the campaigns against drunken driving from Texas to Australia, she said, “It’s an honor.” The message “has to be something that people always remember.”