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."
Police said they had not determined where the young women had been, or where they were going, as they headed west on the inner loop of the Beltway toward the Springfield interchange. Tyler said investigators would be looking into that, as well as the source of the alcohol.
The car was in the middle lane of five on the Beltway at 10:40 p.m., according to Steve Titunik of the Virginia Department of Transportation. The exit for southbound Interstate 95 involves the two left lanes, separated from three through lanes by a wedge of striped pavement. A construction project a short distance farther west on the Beltway did not contribute to the crash, Titunik said.
The car passed the entrance to the exit, Titunik and Tyler said, and then cut left across the striped pavement back toward the exit ramp and into the path of a 2007 Freightliner tractor-trailer carrying a full load of frozen foods. In the right lane of the ramp, the Freightliner smashed into the car, drove it into a retaining wall and flipped it over, Tyler said.
Three of the occupants were ejected. The car was demolished, and investigators could not tell whether the convertible top had been up or down, or whether seat belts had been worn.
The Freightliner was driven by Glenwood B. Spears, 42, of Sanford, N.C. He was not hurt. No charges were filed, and state police said he was not at fault.
Teresa Spears said her husband arrived home in North Carolina yesterday afternoon beset with grief. He had been in Army Special Operations before retiring and taking a job as a truck driver more than a decade ago.
"When you're talking about four young lives on the brink of so much potential, there's nothing to compare," she said.
"He's not one of those gung-ho, macho men. He's a loving and caring and giving person," Spears said. "We're just remorseful. We're just praying for the families, you know. Our kids are just not long out of school themselves. I couldn't imagine the heartache those families must be feeling. . . . I just couldn't imagine the void."
Her husband was not up to speaking about it, she said. "I know this is going to affect him for a long time. But it really isn't about him right now. It is, but it isn't. It is about the four families. My husband . . . Those children," she said, beginning to weep.
It was not clear whether anyone in the Cabriolet planned to attend West Potomac's all-night graduation celebration Thursday at the ESPN Zone in Northwest Washington. A bus from West Potomac was scheduled to leave the school at 11 p.m., 20 minutes after the crash, for an alcohol-free bash that school officials said was only for graduates, and only for those who arrived on the bus. Attendees could not leave the party and were returned to West Potomac at 5 a.m.
With so much experience dealing with teen crashes, schools in the Washington area have revamped driver's education programs, initiated after-graduation parties and used such old but proven methods as displaying wrecked cars on campuses.
Some school districts offer seminars for parents that distill the lessons that make up their children's courses. In Prince William County, school officials offer a mandatory 90-minute seminar to parents whose kids are taking the schools' driver's education program.
Last night, about 150 people gathered in front of the West Potomac campus for a candlelit vigil. Bunches of pink and white roses, cards and snapshots of crash victims with friends and classmates were placed next to a rock.
"One day ago, everyone was really happy," said Jeff Dietze, the student activities director. The school, he said, formed a bond with its graduates. For those who died, he added, "We can't say we ended it on a good note."
Staff writers Amy Orndorff, Joe Holley, Debbi Wilgoren, Michael Laris, Ian Shapira, Tara Bahrampour and researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.