The crowd at Choctaw Stadium began to build while workers attached a massive cloth to a lowered light beam above the festival stage. The cloth soon rose to reveal a logo with two triangles within a circle, and the audience roared in approval.
The lights dimmed, the music swelled from the speakers, and the cloth dropped to reveal five men on stage who had to go to hell and back before returning to the state where they almost died.
The Ghost Inside was back in Texas.
Since the five-piece formed in 2004, the melodic hardcore and metalcore band has traveled the globe and released four full-length albums, with 2014’s Dear Youth reaching No. 9 on Billboard’s U.S Indie charts.
Everything changed during a tour in November 2015. The band was on its way from Lubbock to Albuquerque. The musicians were sleeping on their tour bus just outside El Paso when the driver collided with a tractor-trailer at about 9:05 a.m., according to the Texas Department of Transportation’s crash report.
The bus was ripped apart. The band members were thrown from the bus, landing on the right side of the barren Texas plain next to the highway.
The report describes the tractor-trailer losing tread on the front left tire, which made part of the trailer inoperable. Traveling west on the two-lane highway, the driver of the tractor-trailer attempted what the crash report describes as “faulty evasive action” and entered into the left lane. The two vehicles collided.
The ensuing crash killed both drivers. All five of the band members were in critical condition.
After the crash, doctors questioned whether some of the men would live—much less ever play music again.
But it’s now seven years later in Arlington and drummer Andrew Tkaczyk is attacking his kick drums with lightning-fast precision. It’s a style he’s honed since forming the metalcore band For the Fallen Dreams. If you didn’t know about the crash, you probably don’t notice anything different about his performance.
But that wreck was more devastating to Tkaczyk than his tourmates.
Tkaczyk woke up in the wreckage of the bus. He doesn’t remember much of what happened after that. He was placed in a coma for one week. Dr. Stephen Bloom, who oversaw his recovery at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he had over 80 different “medical complications.” The doctor says Tkaczyk’s kidney, lung, and liver function was so poor that it put his life at risk.
His right shoulder and arm were paralyzed. It hurt to hold a drumstick. Bloom recounted the first time he placed a stick in Tkaczyk’s hand; the doctor had to physically open and close the drummer’s hand to do so. Doctors were forced to amputate his right leg from the knee down, which would make it nearly impossible to play the drums again.
Lead guitarist Zack Johnson had to have two of his toes amputated; he also suffered a broken femur, pelvis, and hip pocket. Lead singer Jonathan Vigil was placed into a medically induced coma for a month. He had a brain injury, a fractured neck, two broken ankles, and his right elbow required a skin graft. An infection in one of his ankle bones delayed surgeries during his recovery.
Bassist Jim Reilly broke his ankle. Rhythm guitarist Chris Davis broke two toes and was in leg casts for months.
“I was the one dragging my feet the most,” Vigil said. “I woke up, and I told people, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
But they knew they could not stop: the man who was having to relearn how to drum was kicking them back into gear.
“Andrew’s commitment to get back on stage is the reason the band got back on stage,” Reilly said.
After overcoming the paralysis in his arm, the team at Mary Free Bed tried to find a way to provide Tkaczyk the ability to play the kick drum with an amputated leg. But Larry Tkaczyk, Andrew’s dad, was ultimately who developed a plan for his son.
“My dad had already come up with this idea, before, like probably during my coma, had come up with this idea for this device,” Tkaczyk said.
The idea was to not play with a prosthetic at all, instead using his residual limb on a pad attached to the kick drum pedal.
His dad first drew it on a napkin. Larry Tkaczyk didn’t show his son until he saw how frustrated he was by the lack of progress. So Larry went out into his garage and built the first prototype. It would become the instrument used on stage.
The So What?! Music Festival in Arlington wasn’t their first gig back. They played their home state of California first. But it was their first time back in Texas.
Six-year-old Luke Rocca was the star of the pit, moshing away alongside his adult-sized music lovers. Videos of the pint-sized metalhead were all over Instagram and TikTok.
His father Nicholas explained what it meant to him and his son to be able to see The Ghost Inside again in person.
“It shows a young group of individuals just what perseverance really is,” Rocca said. “To set an example, for a younger generation as young as this, it means the world.”
The band acknowledged the accident midway through its set, explaining how much it meant to the musicians to replace the last memories they have in Texas with new and better ones.
The band released its first track since the accident in 2020. “Aftermath” was the final song on their 2020 self-titled album, and the band closed its comeback set in Arlington with it.
The song is about what occurred on that highway. “I woke up to a brand new me,” Vigil sings, before unleashing a guttural scream of relief and anger.
When Vigil introduced the song, the crowd stood at attention. Not only had most of these fans been waiting close to seven years to see one of their favorite bands play again, they had breathlessly waited to see this triumphant anthem live.
Multiple crowd surfers were carried over the crowd as smoke billowed from the stage. Vigil screamed “triumph over tragedy” during the song’s breakdown. The lights went dark. Vigil was bent over, just like the stance he took at Tomcats in Fort Worth in 2013, over a year before the crash. Back then, he was singing about his late brother Ryan during the song “White Light.” In 2022, the scream swallows the wreckage, too.
This was what fans of the band had been waiting to see since they learned the news of the crash.
That scream told the thousands in attendance that everything was going to be OK, that these men were moving forward with their lives.
The lights came on and the band walked off the stage. Fans filed toward the exit. It was a remarkably normal end to an extraordinary set of music: The Ghost Inside was back from hell, and they did it in Texas.