The wind picked up late Monday morning, bringing clouds and cold as officials tried to piece together the events leading up to an early Sunday morning wreck in which five Helena-area teens died.
By late afternoon a large piece of plywood had been placed across the impact site. A large freezer bag filled with permanent markers was fastened with a thumbtack, encouraging visitors to express their sentiments.
“You will be missed.”
“Forever good die young.”
“Remember the life … Not the day it was taken.”
Investigators have completed forensic mapping of the scene of the single-vehicle crash on Keir Drive off Canyon Ferry Road. What officials know so far is that the five teens were traveling southbound on the paved road in a 1996 Chevy extended cab pickup when the vehicle failed to negotiate the sharp curve and went straight into the embankment at about 1 a.m.
All five died at the scene, according to Lewis and Clark County Coroner Mickey Nelson. The teens were identified as André D. Hartwig, 18, of East Helena; Beau A. Miller-Lopane, 18, of East Helena; Eric A. Prudhomme, 18, and his sister, Danielle R. Prudhomme, 15, of Helena; and Chanda M. Scarber, 18, of Helena. Hartwig was driving the vehicle.
“There’s still not a lot of information available yet,” said Jeramy Rice, Montana Highway Patrol trooper.
Rice urged anyone with information about where the teens were prior to the crash or where they may have been headed to call him at 461-1086.
“We’d like to see what was going on earlier,” Rice said.
The area on Keir Drive is described by locals as “thrill hill.” Longtime Helena resident Lowell Bartels said his children, now 29 and 30, referred to the road as “roller coaster hill” when they were in school.
“These kids still ride it,” he said Monday afternoon.
Roller coaster is an apt name. The road travels up a hill with low visibility until the top, down a steep grade, then back up and down again. Approaching the corner from either side are signs warning motorists to slow to 20 mph. Now at least seven people have died there.
Sunday’s crash was less than 10 feet from two crosses marking where two other teens were killed in a crash in April 1999.
The dangerous corner is slated for an overhaul this summer as the Montana Department of Transportation works to realign the road. Charity Watt-Levis with MDT said the hairpin curve will be removed, the grade of the road will be flattened and drivers will come to a “T” intersection with a stop sign on Canyon Ferry Road.
Whether the teens were out on a joyride or headed to a specific destination is being explored.
Speed was a factor in the wreck, but Rice said it has not been determined just how fast the truck was traveling when it collided with the embankment.
Alcohol was a probable factor in the crash, Rice said. Beer was found in the vehicle. Toxicology reports will be conducted on all the truck’s occupants as standard procedure. Where the teens got the beer is part of the investigation, Rice said.
Drug paraphernalia also was found in the truck.
The three boys were in the front seat of the vehicle, and the girls were in the extended cab. No one was ejected from the truck, but no one was wearing a seat belt.
The wreck was reported by a man who lives about a quarter-mile from the site of the crash after he came across the truck while driving home. He called 911 on his cell phone and waited for emergency personnel to arrive.
The man, who asked not to be named, said he has seen many drivers speeding in the area.
“It was terrible. What a crushing deal,” he said.
Some neighbors in the area weren’t aware of what was happening.
“We didn’t hear a thing,” said Steve Murphy, who lives within earshot of the embankment. “We were quite surprised we didn’t hear sirens.”
By 6 a.m. when Murphy awoke everything was cleared away.
The sounds of a fire truck engine at about 2:50 a.m. woke up Robert “Bo” Gorsich, who can see the corner out his bedroom windows.
“There was lots of flashing lights,” Gorsich said. “I think they were still working to get the kids out of the rig. … I think it was about 4:30 in the morning by the time everyone left.”
Loved ones stopped by the crash site to pay their respects all day Sunday and Monday.
Lindsey Grubb, an 18-year-old 2009 Helena High School graduate, brought out two small bouquets of flowers before lunch.
“It makes me sick to my stomach,” Grubb said.
“He was our little buddy,” said Sara Dupree, 18, who came with Tammy Wrzesinski, a relative of the Prudhommes, to pay her respects.
Tiffany Miller, a senior at Capital High School, knew several of the teens in the car.
“There are only 44 days (of school) left and this is what happened,” Miller said.
School is out for another week for spring break, so Helena Public Schools Superintendent Bruce Messinger said when school resumes next Tuesday support systems will be in place to help students through the grieving process. Messinger said because of the break, students are finding out about the incident in different ways.
When students return to classes, Messinger said, some will have been gone the entire time and some will have attended funerals while others haven’t, so it will be important to be prepared to handle all scenarios. He’s still working with education staff to formulate this modified approach, which differs from the way the situation would be handled if school were in session this week. Until then, some type of a central community gathering may be an option, Messinger said.
Tailor Wiggins, 17, said in some ways she wishes school were in session this week.
“We’ve been through it, so we know how to help each other through it,” Wiggins said.