Leaving her after-school job for the night, 17-year-old Chelsea Smith was tired, hungry, and dreading the homework that awaited her as she cruised down Hwy. 169 toward home. When her smartphone beeped with a text message from her boyfriend, she did what many people do without giving it a thought: She picked up the phone, slid her thumb across the screen and began to read.
It would take just a few seconds.
But as her car drifted to the side and the rumble strip on the freeway's edge growled, she yanked on the steering wheel and panicked. The next thing she remembers, a stranger was standing over her, trying to pull her out of her mangled Pontiac as flames shot from the hood. A State Patrol officer later told her she had killed a man.
"I just started scream-crying right away," she recalled recently. "I felt sick ... throughout my whole body."
Smith had crossed the median and crashed into an oncoming car, she learned later, smashing in the driver's side and killing 27-year-old Zachary Anderson. Anderson, who had just moved into a house he bought in St. James, was on his way to see a band in the Twin Cities.
Smith didn't admit to using a cellphone during the crash at first, but eventually she pleaded guilty to it. Her sentence included a year of probation, six months of a suspended license and 100 hours of community service, she said.
"Honestly I had it really easy," she said.
Anderson's mother, Bernice Benson, wrote an e-mail to friends and family after the sentencing saying it was hard for her to watch Smith plead guilty. "My heart broke because it could have been so many of our children, standing up there," she wrote. "As our lives will never be the same, I doubt that hers will either."
She and the rest of Anderson's family are still grieving.
"He was doing everything right. He wasn't drinking, he wasn't speeding or driving recklessly, he was wearing his seat belt," Benson said. Anderson was fun-loving and willing to try almost anything after battling childhood cancer, she said, and in an instant, the life they'd worked so hard to keep was over. She misses "never being able to feel the warmth and comfort of one of Zach's bear hugs, no longer hearing that laugh that was so Zach, or seeing that beautiful smile," she said.
Smith would give anything to take that night back, she said. Eighteen months later, she said she doesn't even remember what the text message said. She knows now that it wasn't important. The boy is not her boyfriend anymore.
She thinks about the crash every day. She grows anxious if cars go too fast or stop too soon. She feels sick whenever she sees the aftermath of even a small fender bender. When she rides with friends, she holds their phones for them.
"There's no way in hell I would pick up my phone again," she said. "I've lived with the consequences ... there's just no way."
Anyone who uses a cellphone while driving is taking a risk, she warned. "It's just a matter of time, I feel like, if you keep doing it."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102