A farewell to friends gone too soon

  • Article by: HOWIE PADILLA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2007 - 9:56 PM

At the crash site where three teenagers and a young woman died Tuesday, a classmate of two of the youths came to mourn his Princeton High School classmates and to wonder why so many teens are dying in crashes.

For Alex Harp, the crash site served as a place where he could say a final farewell to two friends and schoolmates, 17-year-old Victoria Swanson and 15-year-old Jordain Rust.

In silence Wednesday, he walked past reporters and television cameras. He walked about 70 steps in long grass flattened by tires, past the plastic litter of broken car remnants.

When he got to a spot where he thought Victoria and Jordain's car had stopped, he knelt and rubbed the back of his neck, his head bowed.

"I don't know if I'll be around for the funerals," Harp said after about 20 minutes of being alone at the scene. He is scheduled to leave for the Marines on Sunday. "I had to come here to pay my respects, to say goodbye, because I really didn't get the chance to."

Authorities released few details Wednesday about a three-vehicle crash that killed four people, including three Princeton-area teens.

Tuesday's collision was the third deadly accident involving Twin Cities metro area teens in the past two weeks. It also left a friend of two of the victims to wonder how to make the fatalities stop.

Hoping for an end

"I just hope that this is the end," the 18-year-old Harp said as he overlooked the crash site at the intersection of Hwy. 95 and Dolphin Street NW. "It just needs to stop. It's just too many."

State Patrol Lt. Mark Peterson declined to say what factors investigators believe may have contributed to the accident.

The roads were wet, a patrol report reads, but Peterson said that he could not comment about whether that contributed to the three-vehicle crash. Instead, he deferred all questions to the facts in the report.

At 2:29 p.m. Tuesday, a semitrailer truck was eastbound on Hwy. 95 driven by Scott Harder, 40, of Mora, Minn. A Buick driven by Brian Olson, 18, of Otsego, Minn., was northbound on Dolphin Street NW. The third vehicle was a car driven by Lisa Vandervegt, 23, of Ogilvie, Minn.

Vandervegt, Olson and Olson's two passengers -- Rust, of Ramsey, and Swanson, of Zimmerman -- all died. Harder's injuries were not life-threatening.

"The investigation will clear everything up," Peterson said. "We won't be releasing anything until that is done."

With no answers, Harp was left to wonder what might have happened. Was the sound system too loud? Could the drivers have been distracted? Could a downpour that passed through Princeton have contributed to the accident?

Whatever the reason, the deaths marked a sorrowful spike in the number of Princeton High School teenagers killed in car accidents in the past 16 months. Last year, three students were killed in three car accidents.

JoBeth Miller, a 16-year-old junior, was killed March 1. Taylor Otto, a 15-year-old whom friends knew as Tate, died 18 days later. Jon Schnackenberg, a 16-year-old junior, died in a car crash the night before homecoming.

The high school yearbook includes dedications to each of them.

A national study released Monday by a physician-led traffic safety group based in Chicago shows that teens, who make up about 6 percent of drivers, are involved in a disproportionate number of fatal crashes.

Dr. Andrea Barthwell, co-founder and co-chairwoman of the Coalition to End Needless Deaths on Our Roadways, said that her group and the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma rank Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota among the nation's top 10 states for fatalities involving 16- to 20-year-old drivers.

Based on 2005 statistics, the percentage of traffic fatalities involving at least one young driver hovers around 19 percent in each of those Upper Midwest states, the groups' study shows. The national average is 16.5 percent.

Barthwell could give no concrete reasons for the higher fatality rate in the Upper Midwest states.

Other recent fatal accidents include the crash Sunday night in which James Castillon, 17, of Stillwater, died when the car he was driving went off the road into a patch of woods. Three passengers in the car were injured.

On June 23, Samantha Kelly, 15, of St. Paul, was killed when the sport-utility vehicle in which she was riding rolled over on Interstate Hwy. 35E near Hwy. 96 in White Bear Lake early that morning. The driver lost control when another motorist sped ahead of the SUV and then slammed on the brakes.

At the site of Tuesday's crash, bright paint marked evidence of the ongoing accident reconstruction and investigation.

As Harp left, he carried a few memories from the scene: A scuffed and dirtied CD from the Used, a band that he said Jordain liked; a black-and-white bandana and a small piece of metal and plastic that once was part of a car.

He said that, hours after the accident, he and his mother were talking about teens believing that they are invincible.

"But we're not," he said. "No one lives forever."

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