Detroit News- Teens' fatal car accident seems all too similar to past tragic accidents
By Marney Rich Keenan, The Detroit News August 4, 2001

Teens' fatal car accident seems all too similar to past tragic accidents

The Detroit News - 08/04/01

   All I had to do was look at the picture on the front page of the paper. I didn't even have to read the headline.

   Two teens are kneeling over a small mound of newly purchased flowers still wrapped in plastic. They are wearing long baggy shorts, one, a baseball cap on backward, another, a bandana, their foreheads resting in cupped hands. Standing behind them, in a unfocused blur, is another teen in a spaghetti-strapped T-shirt, her hands clutching either side of her head as if she is struggling to comprehend the scene before her, but it is just too inconceivable, too mad, too insane.

   It's happened again, I thought. The headline confirmed my suspicion: "Teens, speed, booze a tragic combination: Fatal crash shatters lives, families in the Pointes." The mug shots are, for the most, high school graduation pictures taken only months before: average, normal kids.

   Later this same day, in the afternoon, I am driving my 11-year-old daughter and her best friend to the pool we belong to Troy. This is the first time I have agreed to drop my daughter off alone, unattended by a parent for a couple of hours. The pool is heavily life-guarded, they are both responsible kids, good swimmers, and I gave my daughter my cell phone. Nothing in the world could happen and anything could happen. It's the unforgiving paradox of parenting kids who are coming into their own.

   This is the first of many letting gos for me, and not a big one to be sure, not even comparable to handing over the car keys. I will face that in 3 1/2 years; years that are sure to fast-forward by me with the same accelerated speed as the span of time I cannot now account for when I look at my daughter's face and still see a toothless infant smiling back. It is not coincidental that I think, as I drive away from the pool entrance, of a cement plaque that is on the sidewalk at the pool's outer edge. It is right where I usually position my lounge chair at the center of the pool edge so I can have a good view of my kids. The plaque simply bears the name: Ashley Easterbrook.

   Ashley was a Troy teen-ager in 1997, newly graduated with a 3.5 GPA, looking forward to entering nursing school in college. She, along with two other teens, died in a car crash at an intersection less than 5 miles away from the pool, less than 2 miles from my home.

   Same circumstances: The summer after high school graduation. A bunch of kids crammed in a car in the middle of the night, pedal to the metal, believing as teens do that they are invincible, believing in their swelling hearts, as teens do, the future is theirs and their dreams can really come true. Same reaction from stunned neighbors awoken in their beds by the horrific sound of the crash. Same average, normal kids. Same friends of the deceased teens whose lives are forever wracked with survivor guilt. Same parents' unspeakable loss.

   Ashley's tragedy has been well publicized because Ashley's parents have energized the crusade against driving drunk in her memory. When I go to the pool, I've made it a habit to go read the plaque.

   It's a parent's empathy, I guess, that makes me do it as the sound of my own kids' ringing laughter in the pool is magnified. Or maybe it's the need to make a personal tribute, even though I did not know Ashley, in much the same way, I think, friends tell me they rubbed their hands over the name of my brother, Michael Robert Rich, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

   When I got home from dropping off my daughter at the pool, I went to the garage, where in an old tin filing cabinet I have stashed old newspaper clippings of articles I have written. I pulled out a yellowed, three-part front page series I wrote in 1997 for The Detroit News. For weeks, I reported on a crash that took the lives of four teens in 1996 in Webberville, a small farming community 20 miles east of Lansing.

   I reread it and realized that all I have to do is change the names to make it eerily similar to the days-old tragedy in the Grosse Pointes.

   Right after high school graduation. A bunch of kids crammed in a car. Alcohol found in the car. No seat belts. Excessive speed. Same reaction from horrified neighbors.

   In the Webberville accident, the driver walked away unharmed, just like in Grosse Pointe, where Anthony Pierno, 17, who, it was reported, fled the scene, likely scared out of his mind, the enormity of his nightmare too much to bear. Eight hours after the accident, Pierno turned himself in to police, his parents beside him. He sat in jail for two days while prosecutors studied possible charges. (In Webberville, the driver, Russ Black, pleaded no contest to several counts of impaired driving and causing the death of another. He was sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation. The sentence, thought by many to be too lenient, bitterly divided a once tight-knit community.)

   Same cascade of mourners as memorial services are held within days of each other in the same suburb, same kids attending two, maybe three funerals in one day.

   The quotes from psychologists still apply: "You pack a car full of happy teen-agers, and it's not a driving situation anymore. It's a social situation' "

   "Teen-agers by nature are risk takers, and they tend to perceive those risks as being less dangerous than they really are."

   The statistics haven't changed: Traffic crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teen-agers 15 and older.

   There is no moral to this story. No "never again" lessons to console us. So little to prevent kids acting like kids. I read the same stories six years apart and the feel the same helpless feelings: there but for the grace of God go I. All I can do is pray.
You can reach Marney Rich Keenan at (313) 222-2515, or at mkeenan@detnews.com. Read her columns each Wednesday in The Detroit News Features section, and every Saturday in Homestyle.