'When Is It Going to Stop?'

West Potomac High School students mourn the deaths of two recent graduates, who were killed Thursday with two George Mason University students.
West Potomac High School students mourn the deaths of two recent graduates, who were killed Thursday with two George Mason University students. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Jackman and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Students at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County have heard, repeatedly, about the dangers of alcohol. After their graduation ceremony Thursday afternoon, the school sponsored an alcohol-free, all-night party. But in the end, young drivers take the keys, and their fates, into their own hands.

And so the defining image of the 2007 graduation season will be a white convertible Volkswagen Cabriolet, upside down, its roof gone, and four young lives gone with it. Two 18-year-old West Potomac graduates and two George Mason University students were killed late Thursday when their car suddenly veered into the path of a tractor-trailer on a ramp from the Capital Beltway. A fifth teenager, a 17-year-old West Potomac student, was hospitalized after being cut out of the wreckage. She was released yesterday afternoon, authorities said.

At midafternoon yesterday, Virginia State Police disclosed that alcohol was found in the Volkswagen, Sgt. F.L. Tyler said. Pending further investigation, police declined to be more specific about whether the alcohol container was open, what type of alcohol was found or whether there was proof any of the five women in the car had been drinking.

Police said the driver of the 2002 Cabriolet, Elaine M. Thackston, 20, a student at George Mason University from Troy, N.H., was killed. Her roommate, Sarah R. Carter, 19, of Alexandria, a West Potomac graduate, was killed. Carter's cousin, Lydia M. Petkoff, 18, of Alexandria, was killed. Petkoff's classmate, Renee N. Shelkin, 18, of Alexandria, also was killed.

Petkoff and Shelkin had received their high school diplomas Thursday afternoon in a graduation ceremony at the Patriot Center at George Mason.

"I still can't believe this happened," Shelkin's grandfather, Barry Shelkin, said yesterday. "We should be celebrating." He was debating whether it would be too difficult to attend a candlelit memorial last night. "At graduation time, they should take keys away from all the kids," Shelkin said.

In the past five years, 10 young people have been killed in traffic crashes during graduation season in the Washington area. William H. Reynolds Jr., 17, died early Monday, hours after graduating from Meade High School in Anne Arundel County.

Although the senior class was already gone from West Potomac, the rest of the students still had class yesterday at the school just east of Route 1 in the Alexandria area. Students said an administrator made an announcement about the crash over the loudspeaker and told them that counselors were available.

"People were just crushed," said Tristan Clarke, 14, a ninth-grader interviewed just outside the school. "It's scary. It makes you realize it can happen to anybody."

Debbie Sausville has been trying to make that point to teenagers since her 16-year-old stepdaughter, Lauren Sausville of Fairfax High School, was killed after drinking and driving in 2004. Sausville speaks to high school classes about her stepdaughter's death, especially at this time of year.

Last year, Sausville said, she spoke to the juniors at West Potomac. That class included Petkoff, Shelkin and the surviving 17-year-old, whose name was not released.

"My question is, 'When is it going to stop?' " Sausville said yesterday. She wondered, "When are adults going to stop giving alcohol to children?" and pondered the reality that "kids just can't get over that invincibility that they feel."

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