Editor’s Note: Nora Neus is anchor producer for John Berman at CNN. She is the author of “24 Hours in Charlottesville,” a forthcoming oral history about the 2017 White nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
On a Saturday afternoon, August 12, 2017, Tadrint “Tay” Washington drove to downtown Charlottesville to visit a friend. It was a hot and muggy day in central Virginia. Washington had just graduated from an EMT course and done well on her practical exam. Just one written exam remained before she could officially make good on her promise to herself to find a job she was passionate about and that could provide a good life for her then-seven-year-old daughter.
Washington’s friend wasn’t home, so she got back into her car and headed for home. The regular route was blocked; a detour pushed her further downtown. It was crowded, way more than usual, she thought. Another detour.
Suddenly, Washington found her car surrounded by hundreds of anti-racist protesters celebrating their success in shutting down the largest neo-Nazi gathering in modern history, the Unite the Right rally. She’d forgotten it was that day. “I didn’t notice until I was too late,” Washington remembers. She gripped the steering wheel a little tighter as she waited for the crowd to pass, nervous that she’d accidentally hit someone.
Then – screams. And not a split second later, a crash from behind, the force throwing her forward, crushing her legs underneath her dashboard. Another car had plowed into hers – and into the crowd of pedestrians. Hard. As if it was on purpose.
This was the car attack at the center of the White nationalist riots in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The attack killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville paralegal and counter-protester whose last Facebook post read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” White nationalist James Alex Fields Jr. is now serving life in prison for driving his gray Dodge charger into the crowd, killing Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Fields plead guilty to 29 federal hate crimes as part of an agreement to eliminate the death penalty.
The tragedy not only left one dead and scores injured, but also served as a defining moment early in then-President Donald Trump’s administration when he said there were “very fine people on both sides,” referring to both the anti-racists and the White nationalists.
I first met Washington, then 27 years old, just days after August 12th when I was producing Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the tragedy. I’d only just started working for CNN; until a few weeks earlier, I had been a local news reporter at the CNN affiliate in Charlottesville.
I went to her apartment that day, arriving just as the FBI was leaving, as she recounted the raw trauma, her leg still bandaged. That night, Anderson Cooper interviewed her with her sister Micah for AC360.
Tay Washington was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and has spent the last five years recovering both physically and mentally from the trauma of that afternoon. Over the course of her recovery, she said she learned more and more about the events that led up to the Unite the Right rally.
She says she has been especially frustrated and upset as more details emerged about the failure of the City of Charlottesville government and law enforcement to heed warnings from the local anti-racist activist community that the rally would almost certainly become violent.
An independent report commissioned by the city later found that “the City of Charlottesville protected neither free expression nor public safety on August 12… Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death.” “This is way bigger than me,” she says now, five years later. “I’m just a Black girl that got caught up [in it].”
She and I spoke again recently, this time about the events of the last five years, her recovery and the life-changing impact of August 12, 2017.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Neus: You didn’t even mean to go to the rally in 2017, you were just there by happenstance. This thing that has changed your entire life, you weren’t even planning to be at.
Washington: Right. And that’s the biggest thing for me. My mind goes – this is what my brain does to protect me – Okay. You got hurt. You didn’t get killed. You’re alive. Alright. Now that you alive, you gotta get back to work, go forward. But you can’t go forward. 10 million things are fighting against you.
But also, it just so happened I was there on that day. I think it was to save other people. I think my car was really put there so more people – I really believe it in my heart – so more people wouldn’t get hurt. I don’t know why I had to be the one. The police [and] the FBI agents said if my car wasn’t there as a barrier, way more people would’ve got killed.
Neus: What impact does the car attack still have on you, five years later?
Washington: I have a daily reminder every single day. I have a nerve condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and it’s uncurable, but manageable. It has changed my life – I am not physically able to take care of myself or sustain a job, because of the way my body is functioning. And I have traumatic brain injury also because of the accident, so because of the way my brain thinks now, I can only handle one thing at a time ’cause anything after that is overwhelming, it’s too much.
Neus: Can you tell me about what your dreams were before the car attack?
Washington: I was trying to basically figure out what I wanted to do. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to take care of somebody and I knew I didn’t wanna go to school for a very long time [laughs]. So I used to work at a hospital, and [I would see] EMTs out in the emergency room. And I just started asking questions and I loved what they did. I loved that, you know, they came when emergency calls and it just really excited me. And it just went from there.
I went to school twice because the first time, as my teacher said, my butt wasn’t serious enough [laughs]. I actually got kicked out because I honestly wasn’t serious enough. You’re taking care of somebody’s life. And [my teacher] could just see that I wasn’t at that stage where I needed to be. So the second time around, I not only had to prove something to her, but I wanted to prove something to myself. Like, I can do this. And I just put my all into it. I had to make them proud, this time around. I had to show them who I am, you know? I graduated first in my class and actually got a special scholarship.
I graduated in July  but after you graduate, you have to take a practical and a written state test. I was crying when I got through with my practical ’cause it was that intense, and I thought I messed up, but when I got out of the room, the guy came and told me I did a wonderful job. Then I still had to take a written test. It was scheduled right after August 12th. [After the events of that day] everybody was telling me to reschedule the test. Everybody was telling me to take the time off. But me personally, even though the accident had happened, my main focus was on my career. I thought, I can’t let down the people who believed in me, I gotta show them that I’m serious. I gotta show them that this is what I want. And they picked the right person. So I took the test, walking in there with crutches and everything. And I passed.
Neus: When did it become clear to you that you couldn’t work anymore?
Washington: It was 2018. I had been back and forth to the foot and ankle clinic for almost a year. And then were doing all these tests, putting me in therapy. One day I went in and my doctor looked at me. I still remember this look, and then she said, “I don’t believe this is ankle-related. I think it’s more neurological or nerve-related.” I went to another doctor [and he diagnosed me with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome]. And for me, I was happy! I thought, Finally, oh my God. Yes. They found it.
But my mom didn’t have a happy look. It was more like, Baby, you need to look that up to see what that means. So I’m shaking as I’m trying to look it up on Google. And the first thing that I see on Google, well, it was uncurable and that’s when my whole heart, everything, it just crashed inside of me.
Neus: How has that impacted being a young mother?
Washington: It impacted everything but being a mother extremely because my child is young. She was seven years old. I was very active. We went places. We did things. From her own words, what she misses is that we went places a lot together. We did things more. She loved that. I cooked more. She didn’t have to help as much, like with my dog stuff around the house. I can’t really go places. My pain is unpredictable. It affects her too ’cause she’s beside me, I would need her to do something extra.
Neus: So it sounds like she’s had to grow up too.
Washington: Right, right. She had to grow up and help me in ways she didn’t know. I never needed help before. Now, we’ve become not only mother and daughter, but more friends. She can look at me and say, Mom, you hurting, and nobody else knows I’m hurting, but she does because she’s here, she has learned this behavior.
Neus: And I understand the car attack has really impacted you financially as well.
Washington: Oh my God, extremely. I come from taking care of myself before the accident. I paid my own bills. I worked a full-time job. I went to school full time.
[Now] I have a disease that’s stopping me from being physically to be able to make money for myself. And I still have the same exact responsibilities with no type of income, with no help or assistance. It’s like I’m in a losing battle.
It then affects me mentally because I have to think, Oh, if I didn’t get hit, I’ll be able to work.
Neus: Where do you go from here?
Washington: Only thing I can do for myself is live for me. I can’t listen to nobody’s opinions about me anymore. I can’t listen to how people want me to live my life. This bread is invisible. I can’t prove what happened to me, to people or make them feel my pain anymore, but I can help people like me.
Since I got this disease, I have to live with it. I’ve named myself Complex Blessings. And I want to come out of this on top, [so] I can advocate for people like me, for victims of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and for victims of high domestic terrorism incidents, [especially] Black women. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one, you know?
At the end of the day, it’s not about nothing else or nobody, but you and how you are going to live the life when you on this Earth. That’s it.
Neus: On this fifth anniversary, what do you want people to understand about August 12th?
Washington: I want people to understand about August 12th, that it was planned beforehand, deliberately. People in high places knew what was going to happen.
This is way bigger than me. I’m just a Black girl that got caught up [in it].
President Trump spoke about it on the national news TV to say it’s good people on both sides. And to see something that we saw back in the day with schoolbooks and history happen in this city? And it’s just blown over that easy?