The first accident occurred after midnight, on the sweeping curve of a Fairfax County road. Two cars carrying seven people collided, crashed through a wooden fence and toppled to the bottom of a hill. Four people died. Three were seriously injured.
One hour later, as attendants wheeled the first victims from ambulances into the Fairfax Hospital emergency room, a second accident took place, a mix-up that would catapult three suburban Virginia families onto a roller coaster of elation and grief. Because of this error, and those that followed it, a family mourned for three days a daughter who was still alive while another prayed for the survival of a daughter who was already dead.
Interviews with dozens of those involved in last week's twisted events -- including the four known witnesses to the crash -- reveal that at least 10 persons misidentified victims at various times over a three-day period. Somewhere between the routine procedures followed by police, rescue workers and hospital staff, and the anguish of misguided parents, vital information was lost and assumption was accepted as truth.
To blame, oficials say, is a bizarre sequence of events that began at the scene of the accident early in the morning of Nov. 9:
The force of the impact was so great that authorities could reliably match few identifying personal effects with the victims.
A rescue worker who pulled a woman from the wreckage of one car -- a distinction that might have helped identify her -- did not arrive at the hospital until after she had been mistaken for a female victim in the second car.
An emergency-room secretary tentatively misidentified one female victim, accepting the identification from bystanders who assumed the critically injured person to be their friend.
Police, unable to obtain positive identifications, used the delirious ramblings of one victim in an abortive attempt to identify others.
Because two of the female victims resembled each other, and both suffered extensive facial damage, their families identified them incorrectly.
The reversal of identities involved 18-year-old Alana Klingebiel, who died on an emergency room table one week ago, and Cathy Storey, 22, who now lies in an intensive care unit. Storey regained consciusness two days after the accident, revealing her true identity three hours after the body believed to be hers was cremated.
The confusion began last Sunday when rescue workers responded to a call and discovered a scene of extraordinary devastation. "It looked like a blasted battlefied," said veteran medical technician Bill Roberts.
At about 1:30 a.m., two cars containing eight close friends left a beer party at what they described at a "college fraternity house" off Little River Turnpike near the Capital Beltway. As they approached a broad curve in Annandale Road headed for Loehmann's Plaza, 19-year-old Jonathan Reinemer, driving one of the cars, attempted to pass the other on the inside lane.
Passengers in the trailing car -- themselves traveling 10-15 mph over the posted 35 mph limit -- said they saw Reinemer's Chevrolet Nova shimmy across small bumps in the road. Suddenly, they said, it began to spin out of control, crossing two lanes and slamming into an oncoming car.
Seconds later, Reinemer and all three of his teen-age passengers lay strewn across Walnut Hill Mansion's grassy lawn, three of them dying in the predawn stillness. Their friends from the trailing car, and another who arrived minutes later, wandered among the injured, attempting to confort and calm them until rescue workers arrived.
At 1:56 a.m., three minutes after a Fairfax County Fire Department dispatcher relayed the first of the four alarm calls, Rescue Unit 18 arrived at the scene. "We're got a car over the hill," an attendant radioed, ". . . got one trapped here . . . Are Medic 8 and Medic 10 in service?"
A minute later, Medic 8, a mobile emergency room with three technicians, arrived, and two of its attendants began placing color-coded tags on the victims to distinguish between those who required immediate medical assistance, those who did not, those who were beyond help, and those already dead.
Lt. Douglas Casey, directing the procedure, surveyed the scene. Some of the victims, witnesses said, were visible in the beam of a single headlight still shining from Reinemer's demolished car at the foot of the hill. At least two bodies, they estimated, were trapped in a yellow Mazda -- the car that had been hit when Reinemer tried to pass -- as rescuers used an enormous pair of hydraulic shears to pry the car apart.
Spotlights from the rescue vehicles parked on the roadway cast the area in an eerie light. A growing crowd of onlookers pressed forward.
"How many critical?" the dispatcher asked Casey.
"We're talking at least four critical . . . possibly a total of eight," he replied.
On the field, 23-year-old Steve Bipp, a passenger in the car that was trailing Reinemer's, kneeled by friend Debbie Rodgers. "She was fighting to get up. She said, 'It hurts like hell'" Bipp said. "The paramedic told me to sit on her and hold her arms down."
Jeff Kimmer, the driver in Bipp's car, could not bear to watch what happened to Rodgers, his niece.He sped off to fetch the girl's mother, his sister Diane.
Diane Rodgers was lying in bed studying for an exam when the doorbell rang. she looked at the digital clock on her nightstand. It was 2:13 a.m.
She dressed quickly, and with Kimmer and another friend, started driving to the scene. As they passed Fairfax Hospital she saw an emergency vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. She turned in behind it, arriving at the emergency room door as the victim was being drawn from the back of the ambulance.
"I knew it was Debbie because I saw her socks," Rodgers said. "Then I saw her face. It wasn't marred at all." Standing around Diane Rodgers were Steve Bipp, who had pushed the stretcher carrying Debbie up the hill, 19-year-old Tim Shull and another friend who had followed the ambulance from the crash site.
The first mistake was theirs. "Jane Doe" Misidentified At 2:40, moments after Diane Rodgers identified her daughter, a second female victim, barely alive and known only as "Jane Doe" to the two attendants wheeling her in, arrived at the emergency-room door. Bipp, Shull and the others assumed she must be Alana Klingebiel, whom they had seen lying in the field.
They did not know that rescue workers had already freed Cathy Storey -- the woman on the stretcher -- from the crushed yellow Mazda.
Bipp and Shull walked into the emergency room and approached the secretary. "How's Alana?" Shull asked. Who's Alana?" the secretary replied.
"Well," said Shull, "the one that was just taken in."
"What's her last name?"
From Debbie Rodgers' purse, they retrieved a piece of paper with Alana's name and personal phone number on it. "It rang, and rang and rang," the secretary said. Alana's father had disconnected it earlier that night.
Steve Bipp drove to the Klingebiel home three miles away to notify Alana's parents. There he pleaded with Alana's father, Fred Klingebiel, who was reluctant to open the door at that late hour.
Alana Klingebiel, in fact, was carried into the emergency room at 2:50. At approximately 3:15, a rescue worker from the crash site spoke to the secretary and police. He said he believed the woman already logged as Alana was the victim he had pulled from the yellow Mazda -- Cathy Storey.
"That can't be right," he was told.
"You can't disregard any information that comes in," Judy Abbett of Fairfax Hospital said of the incident, explaining that the hospital "does not identify" victims, leaving that to police and the county medical examiner. "It's a reasonable thing to do in an emergency situation. Our objective is to notify the parents as quickly as possible. You don't do anything final from that, but that's where you start."
By 4:45 a.m. both Alana Klingebiel and Debbie Rodgers had died on the operating table, but Klingebiel's identity was still confused. In the next four hours in the emergency room and morgue -- scenes of unbearable family duress -- there would be three further misidentifications of Klingebiel and Storey.
Because Fairfax Hospital's emergency room was treating victims of another accident, two of the seven persons injured in the Annandale Road crash were taken to Arlington Hospital. Wallace Simpson, 18, died there. Michael Bacon, 21, who was riding in the Mazda, was delirious with a severe concussion and mumbling several names.
One of those names was Janet Thorp, a close friend who was not involved in the crash.Bacon's doctors replayed the name to police at Fairfax Hospital.
Thorp's father was awakened about 6:30 a.m. by a telephone call from the hospital and asked to come down to the Fairfax Hospital emergency room. After waiting there for 30 anxious minutes in the emergency room, a policeman told him, "There's been an accident and your daughter might be involved."
Police asked him to describe his daughter's general features. Thorp recalls that he asked police to supply him with the body's height, weight and eye color before he viewed the body, information he did not receive.
The two police officers then led Thorp through the hospital's basement corridors to a green curtain drawn across a window in the morgue. Thorp stood before the window while an attendant on the other side drew the curtain back. The attendant rolled a body, covered to the neck by a white sheet, to within a foot of the window. A "Victim" Turns Up Unharmed
The body's badly swollen face, Thorp said, still had tubes in the mouth and nose. He asked that the hair be pulled away from the head. The attendant turned the head from side to side, giving Thorp a "full view."
Police said Thorp then positively identified the body as that of his daughter Janet.
"I told them I couldn't be certain," Thorp says. "I just couldn't be certain."
He arrived home about 8 a.m. and told his wife their daughter was dead "I felt that if she was, we should accept it. How do you handle uncertainty?"
When he called one of her friends a half an hour later, he received a surprise. Janet had spent the night there She was alive.
He telephoned the medical examiner, the hospital and police, saying "Janet Thorp is alive. The person in the morgue is not Janet Thorp."
Thorp's "positive identification," according to Fairfax police, was an illustration of the confusion that prevailed among parents in the morgue that morning.
About the same time Fred Thorp arrived home to search for his daughter, a surgeon entered the emergency-room waiting area to speak with Alana Klingebiel's mother, Pearl. The woman wearing a hospital identification bracelet reading "Alana J. Klingebiel" had spent the morning in the operating room.
The surgeon told Mrs. Klingebiel he thought her daughter would survive. She would, however, need plastic surgery. Pearl Klingebiel was then led into the recovery area to see the victim she believed to be Alana. She said the disfigured person was her daughter and continued to say so, along with several other family members, until the woman regained consciousness on Tuesday.
Alana's brother Rick, who had accompanied his mother, tried to suppress his own nagging doubts."I knew it wasn't my sister," he said. "I just didn't have the heart to tell anybody."
At 9:15 Edward R. O'Brien, whose son, Lawrence, 21, was the driver of the Mazda, was fixing breakfast and sitting down to work on a crossword puzzle when his phone rang and he was asked to come to the hospital.
Arriving there, he said, police officers told him, "We think your son is dead." "What do you mean, you think he's dead?" O'Brien responded. "Don't you know?"
After viewing the body, O'Brien recalls asking the condition of Cathy Storey, his son's fiance. Police asked who she was. They told him the woman in the Mazda had already been identified as Janet Thorp. They asked if O'Brien had Storey's phone number. Mother Identifies "Daughter"
Later that morning, Jessie Storey, Cathy's mother, was called to the hospital. According to police, she identified the body of Alana Klingebiel as her daughter. Both she and the Klingebiels have refused to comment on the incident.
The lives of the two sets of friends were closely intertwined.
Lawrence O'Brien, a student at George Mason University who worked part time at a furniture store near his home, and Cathy Storey, a convenience store night cashier who lived a few blocks away, had planned to wed. Michael Bacon, a passenger in the car who was critically injured, was a longtime friend of O'Brien's.
Janet Thorp's brother is married to O'Brien's sister. Michael Bacon and Janet Thorp have been close friends, and occasionally dated, since attending Robinson Secondary School together.
Reinemer, who remains hospitalized with a broken pelvis, and his three passengers, along with the four witnesses in the car behind, were close friends, blue-collar workers, high school dropouts and car buffs who had grown up together.
Alana Klingebiel and Debbie Rodgers had become "best friends" while attending the three-year vocational program in cosmetology in Falls Church High School, Rodgers, who had dropped out of school last year and was working as a clerk in an auto parts store, was studying for a general equivalency diploma from a book her mother had bought her. Alana "was over just about every night helping her study," Diane Rodgers said.
To the four known witnesses of the accident, those who were trailing Reinemer when the crash occured, Alana Klingebiel was the local barber. She had recently received her license in cosmetolody and was working at the Red Lobster restaurant in Falls Church "until a job came up," according to a friend. Wally Simpson, a truck driver for a local construction company who dropped out of Falls Church High School at 16, was a close friend of Jonathan Reinemer's, relatives said.
In interviews last week, relatives of victims sharply criticized what they all feel are inadequate indentification procedures. "Visible indentification procedures. "Visible indentification just isn't enough," complained Larry O'Brien's brother, 31-year-old Kevin. "Something more than time is important."
The discrepancy between the police's insistence that the bodies were "recognizable," and the actual performance of parents who saw them, remains a mystery. If the identifications made by the families had been less certain, other procedures -- such as looking for facial scars or birthmarks -- would have been used.
"If we feel that there is an adequate visual indentification, then we don't resort to other means," said James C. Beyer, deputy chief medical examiner for the northern Virginia district.
No one seems willing to say it can't happen again.
"I don't think there will be any changes made as a result of this," said Fairfax Hospital's Abbett. "You can't just react to one thing and go in and change everything. It was a terrible, tragic thing to happen. But it was a freak. There's nothing to change."