The car smelled of alcohol. It was 2:40 a.m. Sunday. One driver, a 16-year-old, had received her license less than three weeks before. Her three teenage passengers were not wearing seat belts and a fourth passenger, age 21, was probably unbelted as well, authorities said.
It was a perfect recipe for disaster, and it culminated in a fiery head-on collision just west of Cambridge that killed the young driver's four passengers, seriously injured her, left two others dead in a charred SUV and had a stunned community grasping for answers Sunday.
"It's mind-boggling, it truly is," said Deborah Kendryna, whose son Tres Kendryna-Whitefeather, 16, of Cambridge, was among the teen driver's dead passengers. "Why, God? Why?"
A State Patrol accident reconstructionist called the crash "the worst he's ever seen in his life," said patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske. The impact and resulting fire "completely burned up" the SUV, Roeske said.
The 16-year-old driver, identified by a family member as Sabrina Schumacher, was in serious condition Sunday night at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. Capt. Matt Langer of the State Patrol said she could face criminal charges.
State law forbids drivers younger than 18 who have been licensed for six months or less to drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless they are accompanied by a licensed driver 25 or older, heading to work or going to a school event to which the school has not provided transportation. Also during those first six months, only one passenger younger than 20 is permitted, unless a parent or guardian is along.
It was the worst crash in a weeklong spate of crashes involving teen drivers that killed 11 people in Minnesota.
"Enough is enough," said Col. Mark Dunaski of the State Patrol. "Many of these crashes are preventable."
Schumacher's 1998 Pontiac Grand Am was headed west on two-lane Hwy. 95, near County Road 70, when it collided with a 2000 Oldsmobile Bravada SUV, which caught fire. Two people in that vehicle, a 24-year-old driver from Sandstone and his male passenger, died. As of late Sunday, they had not been positively identified by the medical examiner, Roeske said.
The crash also killed Kelsee Blackledge, 15, of Cambridge; Travis Buchan, 17, of Cambridge; Travis Gryczowski, 21, of Cambridge, and Kendryna-Whitefeather -- a "senseless accident" that had Kendryna-Whitefeather's mother searching for explanations between sobs.
Her son was struggling to maintain his sobriety, she said. She had warned him Saturday, just as she playfully did every day, "Don't do anything stupid," she said. He responded, "Mama, I love you," she said.
But Deborah Kendryna, a longtime worker in the field of chemical dependency, said she worried when Sabrina Schumacher came by. Kendryna said she recently had thrown Sabrina out of her home because "she could always get liquor" for the young people.
Schumacher's boss at Jimmy's Pizza, Jimmy Gordon, 23, offered a different view of Sabrina, calling her a "great girl" who worked hard and was always responsible.
Travis Buchan had begun dating Schumacher recently, said friends who gathered Sunday afternoon at the accident scene. A clever lyricist who let his mind run wild when composing songs, Buchan, who went by the nickname "Trouble," was "goofy" and easygoing, said friend Katie Swanson, 18.
Buchan often had said he was lucky to be alive, friends recalled. He had survived an earlier car accident in which he hit a silo and had a noticeable scar on his upper lip as a reminder, friends said.
Some of the young people involved in the accident had a reputation for wildness. Said Isanti County Sheriff Russ Monson: "Some of our guys have seen some of these kids."
They planned to 'hang out'
Schumacher, Buchan, Kendryna-Whitefeather and the others were seen at a baby shower at the Isanti VFW early Saturday evening, said friend Derrick Hanson, 20. The five who would end up in Schumacher's car later were seen at a Subway sandwich shop, with at least some of them planning to stay overnight somewhere, friends said.
"In between, they were going to hang out," said Aaron Jacobson, 18, of Isanti.
Not long before the accident, Schumacher's car was seen pulling into an all-night McDonald's in Cambridge. The next time it was seen was at the accident site, with six people dead and the odor of alcohol coming from the teenager's car, authorities said.
"We can't confirm who [the alcohol] is connected to," Roeske said.
Kendryna-Whitefeather's mother called her son "such a good boy who struggled for so long."
"I do trust God, and I want to believe that my son is in a better place," she said.
As dozens of teenagers parked near Hwy. 95 to try to picture the unfathomable Sunday afternoon, even a veteran sheriff like Monson was moved.
"There's a dark cloud over our community today," he said.
Some of the young people left flowers, wept and hugged. Others drove away, shaking their heads in disbelief.
A deadly week
The accident capped a weeklong stretch that saw 11 deaths on Minnesota roads. Last Monday, Blake Eckert, 18, who had just earned his diploma from the Winona Area Learning Center, died when his car rolled on Winona County Road 25 near Lewiston, in southeastern Minnesota. Two passengers were injured. Authorities said Eckert may have been text-messaging just before the crash.
On Friday, three girls were killed and another was critically injured in a rollover of a pickup truck driven by 16-year-old Shauna Marie Ruhoff near Altura, not far from the site of Eckert's accident.
The four, all in the cab's lone row of seats, were headed to a track meet in Ruhoff's pickup when it rolled into a ditch east of County Road 27. Ruhoff and Morgan Zeller, 13, both of Lewiston, and Katie Lee Hornberg, 14, of Altura, died instantly. A fourth girl, Cydney Maker, 12, of Lewiston, was in critical condition at Gunderson Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wis. Ruhoff was in the second six months of having her license, according to state records, meaning that it was legal for her to be driving with three passengers.
Shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday, Deanna M. Anderson, 16, turned into the path of an SUV at an intersection in Onamia in central Minnesota, was struck broadside and killed. The patrol said Anderson, of Onamia, was under the influence of alcohol.
Three others were in the car, including the driver's mother, who was hospitalized with noncritical injuries, the patrol said. The mother's 6- and 10-year-old daughters were also hurt but did not require hospitalization. The SUV driver was banged up, but not hospitalized.
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