Small Town Grapples With Teen's Death in ATV Crash
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
It's an ordinary chain, maybe six feet long, its white paint stained by rust. One end is fastened to a forlorn-looking tree. The other is attached to a wooden post with weather-beaten signs that say: "Private Drive. Do Not Enter."
The chain marks the end of a path that runs along Popes Head Creek from the tiny town of Clifton to the lawn of a private home at the foot of a forested hill. The chain also marks the spot where 14-year-old Samuel Seipel was killed last month when he crashed into it while driving his ATV -- and it has become a symbol of an emotional fissure in a small Fairfax County town where everybody knows everybody.
Why, people ask, was the chain strung across a path often used by birders, horseback riders, walkers and kids on motorbikes and ATVs? Others see the four fluorescent traffic cones that were placed in front of the chain after the fatal crash and wonder why some kind of warning wasn't put there earlier.
"I think everybody is just -- the whole town is questioning, and somewhat angry. People are upset that that chain was up and it wasn't clearly marked," said Elsa Armendaris, 36, who said Sam often lent her a hand after her husband died 10 months ago.
And still others want to know why such a young boy was on such a powerful machine on someone else's property.
The Nov. 23 death of Sam, a teenager living a life that Huck Finn might have led if Mark Twain's fictional hero had traveled by ATV instead of a raft, has shaken this Northern Virginia town of 225 people. It has also brought people closer together as they collected money to pay for Sam's funeral, cooked meals for his family and mourned a boy who loved anything with a motor and made a friend of just about everyone he met.
They told of Sam's talent for resurrecting junkyard castoffs with a little tinkering. They talked about how he was a whiz at fixing other people's bicycles and lawn mowers, about how he was always giving away kittens or newly hatched chicks, and about the way he often stopped at Armendaris's home to fix things or cut the grass.
The last image some people had of Sam was in helmet and goggles pushing his 350cc Yamaha Banshee across the Virginia Railway Express railroad tracks in the center of town shortly before he was killed.
"He was just full of life. He was like sunshine -- lit from within," said Sarah Coster, 45, whose 14-year-old son, Willie, was riding with Sam when the 3:34 p.m. crash occurred.
But there is compassion, too, for the family of William S. and Katherine A. Jasien, a high-powered Republican couple on whose Dunquin Court property the crash occurred. Bill Jasien, 47, a senior vice president at ING Financial Advisers, served as assistant U.S. treasury secretary under President George H.W. Bush. Katherine Jasien, 45, is the sister of former Virginia governor and U.S. senator George Allen.
The Jasiens' property in the Glencairn development includes an easement for the path, which was a farm road before the development was built, according to town officials and Fairfax County Circuit Court land records. The path extends west from Chapel Street, which becomes a dead end. It also borders the Webb Sanctuary owned by the Audubon Naturalist Society of the Central Atlantic States. Cliff Fairweather, senior naturalist for the society, said the chain lies about 30 feet past the conservation group's property line.
The Jasiens also own an ATV and often piled onto it for a short drive down the gravel path to Main Street for a treat at the Ice Cream Depot, neighbors said. It was the Jasiens' 14-year-old son whom Sam was going to visit that afternoon a few days before Thanksgiving when the crash occurred, neighbors and friends said.