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Survivor of N.J. crash draws strength from family’s memory

Ken Watts | 1/3/2014, 6 a.m.
Nicole Mallett, shown here in her 2012 Stephenson High School graduation photo. Nicole is a second year pre-med student at Georgia Southern University.

A year after losing her mother, father and younger brother in an auto crash, Nicole Mallett is rising above the profound loss that haunts her.

On Dec. 30 – three days after the first anniversary of the Dec. 27, 2012, tragedy that changed her life forever – she said she has finally reached the point where she can think of her family without breaking down in tears.

“Now I can draw strength from their memory,” she said.

Nicole, now 19, said she spent Dec. 27 with her grandmother, Prudencia Mallett.

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Ainsworth Mallett Jacqueline Mallett Drew Mallett

Nicole; her parents Ainsworth, 52, and Jacqueline, 49; her 12-year-old brother, Drew, a student at Stephenson Middle School; and the family dog were on their way back from visiting her ailing grandmother in Hartford, Conn., when the family’s silver Toyota Camry was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer in a four-vehicle collision on the New Jersey Turnpike in Mount Laurel, Burlington County.

The accident closed the southbound lanes for more than five hours.

Nicole was the lone survivor.

She was treated for minor injuries at Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey and released.

At the Jan. 5, 2013, homegoing service for her parents and brothers at Tabernacle Assembly of God Church in Decatur, she spoke eloquently from the pulpit.

“I believe in God,” she said. “But I can’t find a logical explanation for what happened or why I am alive. I guess it’s not for me to understand … I just have to wait on God’s plan.”

At the time of the accident, the 18-year-old Stone Mountain resident was a freshman at Georgia Southern University. She is now in her second year of premed studies at the university but is contemplating relocating to Los Angeles.

Nicole said her mom lost her mother when she was 13.

“As painful as it was, it didn’t stop her,” she said. “With my own losses I’ve learned something about myself. I’m stronger than I thought I was.”

As they headed back home to Stone Mountain, Nicole recalls chatting with her father about a song that was playing on the radio – rapper Flo-Rida’s version of “Piano in the Dark.” She remembers telling him about how much she liked the song and hearing him say the original 1988 track by Brenda Russell was much better.

The accident left a tangle of crushed metal. Nicole says she does not remember anything about the impact.

“I do remember that a man came out of the woods afterward and pulled me from the wreckage,” she said. “I had to get a few stitches in my lip and a few in my scalp but that was it. I don’t know how I survived. There was death all around me, but I came out with a just a couple of scratches.”

Because of her fragile health, relatives did not tell her grandmother about the deaths until June, six months later.

News of the accident sent shock waves through their Carriage Trace subdivision in Stone Mountain where the family lived and through Lithonia, where her parents had operated a popular Golden Krust Bakery & Grill franchise since 2006. Her mother, who was known as “Miss Jackie,” was also an administrative assistant at Stephenson Middle School.

The Malletts relocated to the United States from Jamaica when they were young and had lived in Stone Mountain for 16 years. Their restaurant on Rockbridge Road was a popular hangout for many in the Caribbean-American community.

Kay Mills, a manager at the Golden Krust on South Hairston Road, said they were loved.

“They were a wonderful family,” she said. “I miss them a lot.”

The community held a candlelight vigil outside the Malletts’ restaurant in tribute on Jan. 2, 2013. A few days later, it closed for good.

Friends and relatives rallied around Nicole, and after a difficult couple of months, she set her sights on becoming a doctor.

“I had been interested in medicine for a long time,” she said.

She said her grandmother is recovered from lung and kidney problems that had plagued her last year.

While she can’t speak to her parents and brother anymore, Nicole says she feels their presence and that little things bring back pleasant memories of her family.

“I finally heard the original version of ‘Piano in the Dark’ and liked it, just like Dad said I would.”