Amber Johnson and her father, Michael Johnson, died together November 10.
Sunflowers, hydrangeas and roses mark the scarred tree trunk where 20-year-old Amber Johnson and her father died on a country road in Crozet.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE
Twenty-year-old Amber Leigh Johnson is known for her friendliness and her smile. Her photograph captures that, and it seems jarring to be on the obituary page.
The smile is the first thing her boss, Mark Hurley at Cheeseburger in Paradise, mentions, along with her energy. He was particularly impressed she was going to Piedmont Virginia Community College while working full time.
On November 10, after having dinner at Cheeseburger in Paradise with her mother and father, Amber Johnson's dreams of working with children in medicine abruptly came to an end.
Her mother, Jessica Lewis, is still hospitalized from the accident that killed her daughter and her ex-husband, Michael Wayne Johnson, 40, on Half Branch Road in Crozet. Police say Lewis, 36, of Crimora, was driving too fast and had been drinking when she slammed into a tree on the narrow country road just south of King Family Vineyards.
Lewis has been charged with driving under the influence. Police are awaiting the results of a blood alcohol test, and say additional charges are pending. When driving and drinking result in death, manslaughter charges are typical, says Sergeant Darrell Byers with Albemarle police.
The Kia Optima Lewis was driving was crushed and the engine was on fire when father and son Warren and Robert Wood arrived.
"I live about three minutes from there," says Warren Wood, a 25-year volunteer with the Crozet Fire Department. "I responded in my personal vehicle."
Despite the risks of going into a burning car, Wood pulled the three out, handing them to his son, a former firefighter. "There was a little difficulty in getting them out," says Warren Wood. "Fire was coming from the dashboard when I took the second person out." He says all three were alive, and that Jessica Lewis was conscious and in obvious pain.
"I've been asked by police not to talk about the location of the people in the car or their condition," says Wood, who adds that there's information about the accident that has not been released.
That rescue was not enough to save Amber and Michael Johnson, who were airlifted to UVA Medical Center and pronounced dead there.
"Thursday night, neither me or my son slept," says Wood.
Amber Johnson, a 2009 Western Albemarle High School grad, impressed the scholarship committee at St. Paul's Ivy her senior year.
"We're looking for students who are clearly committed to furthering their education," says Pat Greene, who works on the church's scholarship program. "Secondly, we're looking for students who express a desire for an education, not just to help themselves, but to help the community. Amber impressed us with her interest in helping children and her commitment to community and service."
Initially, says Greene, Amber wanted to be a pediatric dental technician, but had shifted to PVCC's program in sonography. "She was absolutely committed to finishing this program," says Greene, who spoke to Amber about five weeks ago.
"She presented herself so well and was so poised," remembers Greene. "She worked so hard to stay in school. She was a young woman of so much promise."
Amber made such an impression on her coworkers at Cheeseburger in Paradise, where she had worked for almost a year, that Cheeseburger crews came in from Fredericksburg and Newport News November 15 to cover for the local staff so they could all attend her funeral at Mount Ed Baptist Church in Batesville.
"I've never seen such an effect on people," says Mark Hurley. "I've never lost an employee like that."
Hurley says Amber's infectious smile and personality impressed him from the beginning, but other skills, like showing up on time, were more problematic, and after about six months, "I actually fired her," he says. "She came back two days later. She was so sincere, and when I hired her back, her work ethic changed. I am so fortunate she came back."
The last night Amber was in the restaurant was the first time Hurley met her mother, but he had met her father, Michael Johnson, before. "They had this incredible bond," says Hurley. "There's nothing greater than a father-daughter relationship."
The Reverend Ronald Nickell has known the Johnson family for nearly 40 years, and remembers Amber's father, Michael Johnson, as a "little bitty fellow" when he first came to Mount Ed Baptist Church.
"He always had a smile and a greeting," says Nickell. "He was very good at what he does in the electrical field and as a contractor."
The last time he saw Amber a few weeks ago, she had to leave Sunday School early to go to work. "She was a very friendly girl, a loving girl, who loved her family," says Nickell, mentioning Amber's sister and three half-brothers.
On Monday, Nickell was preparing for the double funeral service that he was going to officiate the next day.
"This is a hard one for me to put together," he admits. "It's a tragedy."