Tragedy to Triumph: The Willis Family, 20 years after the van crash claims 6 of 9 children

“I’m Jada, I’m Jaeger, I’m Joy, I’m Jamie, I’m Julie, I’m Jazz, I’m Jedi, I’m Jack, I’m Jet, I’m Jen, I’m Jair, I’m Jess, I’m Brenda, and I’m Toby. And we are the Willis Clan!” Two parents, twelve kids; a talented family with Irish musical roots straight from the South side of Chicago.    Toby Willis is the older brother of the six Willis children who died in a fiery van crash near Milwaukee 20 years ago this Saturday. And as WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, that crash is the narrative of their lives.

CLICK HERE TO SEE WILLIS FAMILY WEB EXTRAS

We first met the Willis Clan in August when they came to WGN to perform on our Midday news. We followed them to Milwaukee’s Irishfest, but we didn’t just for for the music. They were planning a surprise tribute for the first responders who’d tried desperately to save Ben, Joe, San, Hank, Elizabeth and Pete on November 8th, 1994.

The Willis’s like big families, and we mean really big. Brenda married Toby. He’s the second of Reverend Scott and Janet Willis’s nine children. “When the accident happened, I was married, had two kids, and actually we had #3 on the way.” “I was pregnant with Jenny," says Brenda. “And, the first thing my Mom said was, “Bren, you’ve got to remember to take care of yourself. You can’t get so overwhelmed emotionally that you’ll hurt the baby that you’re carrying.”

That unborn baby, now 19-year-old Jenny, wrote a song for her lost uncles and aunt called, “Road to Watertown.”

“It’s a happy piece. But it still has some of those chords in there that are like heart wrenching. When we play it, I don’t think about the accident.” It was mid-morning when Jenny’s grandparents, Reverend Scott and Janet Willis, were on their way to Watertown, Wisconsin to visit their son Dan and his family.

Near Milwaukee, they ran over a piece of metal. Though suffering severe burns on their hands and faces, Reverend Scott described the scene: “When we hit the object, the rear exploded taking the car out of control. The fire was around us even before the van stopped sliding and I was yelling to get out of the car.”

Despite their heroic efforts, the youngest five children died immediately; the eldest, Ben, the next day. Again, Reverend Scott. “Benny’s courage,13 year old especially (breaks down). That’s a great memory.”

People around the world were deeply saddened, yet amazed by the couple’s strength. “The depth of pain is indescribable. The Bible expresses our feelings that we sorrow, but not as those without hope.”

The Willis tragedy also exposed a political scandal in Illinois when it was learned the truck driver, whose rig lost that piece of metal, had bribed a state worker for his license. The resulting federal investigation and cover-up sent dozens of state employees to jail, including former Illinois Governor George Ryan.

Five years later, the Willis’s thanked the people of Chicago. “I’m thankful to all the people to the city of Chicago and all the people who have been so good to Janet and me.”

In August of 1999, the Willis’s won a $100 million out-of-court settlement.

"We have the joy of the Lord. We do have 15 grandchildren that come to the house and are a great joy to us. They’re not replacement kids, they’re just a great joy.” Toby Willis says it changed the way their family looks at life.

"After losing the brothers and sister, it really helps focus on what’s important.” …Important this August night at Irishfest; thanking the people of Milwaukee on the 20th anniversary of the crash. Toby isn’t the only surviving sibling with a large family. Older sister Amy and her husband Alan have nine kids. And brother Dan and his wife Kim, have 13. Grandparents, siblings, cousins, came from Tennessee, Michigan, and Illinois to say thanks.

One by one, the Willis family filed on stage, standing shoulder to shoulder as the unsuspecting crowd watched a videotaped tribute. Toby, who created the video and runs audio for the band, watched the reaction from the audience.

“When you have thousands of people kinda stand up and acknowledge the situation, it was very moving for me.” Brenda believes it was therapeutic for the audience as well. “People came back to us after that and were just overwhelmed with thoughts and memories of the accident. But then they were so uplifted by seeing all the kids on stage, the whole family together.”

“A lot of them were so surprised,” says first born Jessica. “They had no idea that our family had gone on to -part of our family had gone on to do this.”

The Willis Clan lives in Tennessee now and has doubled in size since moving from Chicago in 2001. The kids are all home schooled, and their days are filled with music and family; those present and past. A wrestling photo of their lost uncles is a constant reminder to appreciate every loved one, every day. Grandparents Scot and Janet followed Toby’s family to near Nashville in 2004, just in time to help their second son and his family recover from a house fire that destroyed most of their earthly possessions.

Brenda sees it this way: “My mother in law went through a fire and she lost her six kids. I went through a fire and I didn’t lose any of mine.”

"When the house did burn down you I’m like I’ve had worse happen to me you know,” Toby said.

It’s a whole new perspective on life. And they believe they’ve been given a platform to help others going through tough times. That platform now includes regular appearances at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. On nights like this, they pinch themselves to be playing between the legendary Lee Greenwood and country music superstar Keith Urban.

“The neat thing about our band is it’s kinda perpetual,” says Brenda. “We have the younger ones coming up and they love to sing and they love to dance and they are learning to play instruments.”

Even with 12 kids, Toby is a relaxed man. “We wake up in the morning and say what’s gonna happen today? It just seems like the roller coaster goes up and down up and down. After a while you quit trying to grab on and quit trying to steer, you just throw your hands up and go let’s just enjoy the ride.”

We want to make sure you caught the fact that Scott and Janet Willis’s three surviving children now have a total of 34 grandchildren! We’ve compiled numerous exclusive web extras, including the entire Milwaukee tribute, and the Willis Clan performances from the Grand Ole Opry. You can find them at wgntv.com/WillisClan.

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Mike D’Angelo and Carlos Cortes contributed to this report.

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