NEW CUMBERLAND-The car accident that took the lives of three Hancock County teenagers in January was the result of several split-second, fateful decisions made by an inexperienced driver, the Hancock County Sheriff's Department has concluded.
The Jan. 18 accident on state Route 8 killed the driver, Kristyn Butcher, 16, of Newell; her front-seat passenger, John "Emmett" Snow III, 16, of New Cumberland; and the back-seat passenger, Kaylin Rice, 16, of Chester.
The deaths have sent shock waves through the Oak Glen High School community in the weeks since the accident, leaving family members, students and teachers reeling and struggling to cope with their grief. Butcher and Rice were juniors at Oak Glen, and Snow was a sophomore.
The sheriff's department has proceeded deliberately with its investigation, choosing not to release the accident report until the students' parents had been notified.
"I wanted to make sure that the parents had an opportunity to sit down and listen and ask questions," Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said.
Sheriff's Detective Matt Harvey led the investigation, with assistance from other officers, including sheriff's Lt. Brian Scott Swan and New Cumberland police Lt. Jeremy Krzys, the first officer on the scene.
Harvey's report said several actions by Butcher contributed to the crash-her decision to pass another car in a no-passing zone, her high rate of speed and her inability to take corrective action.
The three teenagers had just left a Saturday night home game of the Oak Glen girls basketball team and were on their way to Snow's house in New Cumberland. Snow's sister Alyson plays on the team.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Jan. 18, they were southbound on Route 8 in Butcher's father's 2000 Chrysler Sebring convertible when they encountered a New Manchester Volunteer Fire Department pumper truck responding northbound to a report of a chimney fire, the sheriff's report said.
The fire truck had its lights and sirens on and was traveling between 50-59 mph, the report said. Driving it was Firefighter Markas Dunlevy, and riding in it were five other volunteer firefighters, the report said.
Butcher, driving with an intermediate license, attempted to pass another southbound vehicle in the vicinity of Tomlinson Run State Park, the report said. She was driving at about 68 mph in a 55 mph zone, the report said.
Butcher swerved back into the southbound lane, leaving a "yaw" mark in the northbound lane, the report said. She then swerved back into the northbound lane and into the path of the oncoming fire truck, the report said.
With the point of impact being the Chrysler's passenger side rear quarter panel, the collision caused the car to split in two and come to rest on the east side of the roadway, the report said. All three occupants were ejected, most likely because they weren't wearing seat belts, the report said.
"(The evidence) leads us to believe strongly that (seat belts) were not being used," Fletcher said.
The fire truck came to rest in the northbound lane, and two firefighters had to be transported to Weirton Medical Center for "non-incapacitating" injuries suffered in the accident.
Butcher and Rice were pronounced dead at the scene, and Snow succumbed to his injuries after being transported to East Liverpool City Hospital.
Harvey's report concludes that the fire truck did not have a sufficient amount of time or distance to either stop or maneuver away from the Chrysler. The time it took for the Chrysler to travel from the first swerve to the point of impact was about 1.25 seconds, the report said.
Considering driver reaction time and the reduced braking efficiency of a commercial vehicle, it would have taken the fire truck six seconds, or 244 feet, to stop from 50 mph, the report said. The distance from the first swerve to the point of impact was 113.5 feet, the report said.
The report notes that because of the restrictions on Butcher's graduated driver's license (Level 2), she should not have had more than one non-family member under the age of 20 as a passenger.
"Her experience behind the wheel does come into play," Fletcher said. "The truest definition of an accident is an unintentional happening. Nobody meant for this to happen. It was an accident."
But it was also more than an accident, he said.
"This type of accident-it didn't just affect the families. ... It affected our entire community. The towns of Chester, Newell and New Cumberland all lost somebody. Those are three communities within our jurisdiction that lost a child," Fletcher said.
In the weeks since the accident, expressions of support and sympathy have poured in to Oak Glen High School, Principal Barbara Logue said.
The snow days following the accident-students did not return to school until Jan. 23-were a blessing in disguise because they "gave people a chance to grieve at home and grieve with their families," Logue said.
At Monday's school board meeting, Logue thanked Superintendent Suzan Smith personally for her help.
"We had such an outpouring from the community and surrounding communities," Logue said. "So many people who are so concerned and so sorry over what has happened."
Logue said U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia called the high school on Feb. 7 and sent letters to all three families.
High school students got a chance to sign and leave messages on wall posters that will be given to the families, she said. Hancock County elementary schools are taking a collection for the families through the end of the month, she said.