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Sister of woman killed in Harbor Bridge wrong-way accident demands action

Julie Gatheral.PNG
Posted at 12:09 PM, Feb 15, 2023

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — It's been seven years, but Susan Hardinger still finds it difficult to come to terms with the death of her sister.

"She had so much good yet to do," Hardinger said.

Hardinger's sister Julie Gatheral was killed by a drunk driver who drove the wrong way onto the Harbor Bridge on Sept. 22, 2015.

"I miss her every minute of every day," she said. "I can't believe it's been that long already. It feels like yesterday. The pain feels like yesterday."

KRIS 6 News traveled to Reading, Pa., to hear Susan's story and learn more about Julie.

Who Julie was

Julie is buried in a cemetery just up the hill from her sister's home, right beside her family.

Hardinger said Julie was the kindest, most compassionate person, who owned an animal rescue in Taft. She added Julie found homes for at least 200 animals before her death and had another 65 waiting.

"She had the biggest heart of anybody I knew, so much unconditional love for everybody," Hardinger said. "It didn't matter what was going on in their life, she was always there to want to help, always."

For years, the two sisters stayed in touch, long-distance, Hardinger in Pennsylvania and Julie in Taft. They spoke nearly every night about everything.

"She would fill me in on what was going on, and you know, their life out in Texas," Hardinger said.

That life included Julie's husband Ian.

"She was his queen," Hardinger added.

Julie's routine included a daily drive over the Harbor Bridge to pick her husband up from work. Hardinger said Julie cherished that daily commute.

Julie's death, her family's reaction

A Corpus Christi Police Department crash report states on the night of Sept. 22, 2015, Lionel Guerra was intoxicated when he drove his pickup truck the wrong way up the southbound exit ramp of the Harbor Bridge.

Moments later, he crashed head-on into a black SUV driven by Julie. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

"Senseless," Hardinger said.

And at the time of the crash, Ian Gatheral was waiting for his daily ride home, from Julie.

The ride that never came.

Hardinger said that the intense grief of life without Julie was overwhelming for Ian.

"He was just extremely lost without her being there," she said.

Just over a year after Julie was killed, Ian died on Nov. 11, 2016. Doctors said he died of congestive heart failure.

Hardinger said it was something worse.

"I still think the biggest part of his death was broken heart," she said. "She was his love. She was his heart."

Ian didn't live long enough to see justice for Julie. On Jan. 12, 2017 — two months after his death — 47-year-old Lionel Guerra plead guilty to intoxication manslaughter.

Lionel Guerra asks for forgiveness

In year five of a 20-year prison sentence at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Guerra agreed to talk about that life-changing night in 2015 with KRIS 6 News.

"I don't even remember talking to anybody," Guerra said. "The only thing I remember is waking up in the hospital."

Guerra said he was drinking all day to numb the pain of his father's recent death and that he regrets his decision to drive that night.

"My heart just hurt. I was numb that I had actually took somebody's life because of my stupidity of putting myself on that road," he said.

Years after he asked Julie's family for forgiveness, he's asking again.

"I'm very, very, so sorry for their loved one that I know they love very much to take from their earth," Guerra said.

Hardinger said she isn't quite ready for forgiveness.

"I try to be a good Christian woman, and I believe in forgiveness, but I'm just not there yet," she said.

Should the bridge exits be closed?

But, both Guerra and Hardinger agree on one thing:No driver, impaired or sober, should have easy access to a wrong-way exit on the Harbor Bridge.

"Even if I was probably in the right set of mind, it could have happened," Guerra said.

And they said these exits should be shut down.

"Ideally, I'd like to see the ramp closed so people can't do this anymore," Hardinger said.

Seven years after the shock of the sudden loss of her sister, Hardinger is asking where the urgency is to act to prevent the loss of other innocent lives.

"I just can't fathom like, what was it going to take until somebody starts saying how many people have to die on the bridge before something is done with these ramps to make them safer, to prevent other families going through this kind of phone call?" she asked. "Something has to be done to prevent people getting on these ramps the wrong way."

That something starts with community leadership, Hardinger said, and she has a message for those leaders.

"Please take notice. One life is too many. One life lost is one too many," she said. "And they're all based on the same result — people getting on these ramps the wrong way. Do whatever studies you have to do, try to get whatever funding you have to do. Do what you can to prevent other innocent people from getting killed."

KRIS 6 News asked TxDOT a series of questions about safety related to these exit ramps, any ongoing plans to make these exits safer, and any action taken by TxDOT following fatalities in 2015, 2020, and 2022. We also requested an interview with TxDOT executive director Marc Williams.

TxDOT did not respond to our questions by the time part one aired on Feb. 15. On Wednesday, TxDOT answered. But, rather than answering the questions provided, the state agency provided a statement and said all questions were addressed.

To report issues or any complaints with roadways managed by the Texas Department of Transportation, click here.

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