Faith sustains families after crash
By Chuck Lindell
Leaning on their religious beliefs for support, family members of five teen-age girls killed in Sunday's two-vehicle accident in Southeast Austin began arriving Monday at Brackenridge Hospital to remember the girls and pray for six other church members who survived the crash.
"God promoted them to bigger and better jobs," Richard Noell said from Miami shortly before boarding a flight to Austin. "There is more for them to do." Noell's daughter, Kristina Noell, 16, was one of the 14 to 17-year-old girls killed Sunday during a cross-state evangelism trip when their van failed to stop at an intersection near McKinney Falls State Park and broadsided a pickup that was crossing the intersection at McKinney Falls Parkway and Burleson Road.
"She's got angel hair," Richard Noell said of his daughter. "She's really striking. It's not just my daddy's pride. She's just angelic. This really didn't seem to be her home."
Also killed in the afternoon crash was Rhonda Harris, 45, a passenger in the pickup. The driver of the pickup, her husband, John Harris, received minor injuries and was released Sunday night from Brackenridge Hospital.
Reached at his Cedar Creek home in Bastrop County, Harris said he was too distraught to discuss his wife or the accident, which rescue workers described as horrific.
The occupants of the van, 10 teen-agers and one adult, were members of a Christian-based religious group formerly called the Children of God but today known as the Family. The 11 were on an evangelism trip from New Orleans to Laredo and had camped in McKinney Falls State Park on Friday and Saturday nights.
At Brackenridge Hospital -- where one teen-ager remained in critical condition Monday -- relatives of the dead and injured began arriving from their homes in Canada, Florida and New Orleans.
"We're all broken and crying," said Louis Korkames of New Orleans, whose 14-year-old daughter Victoria died Sunday. "We're certainly going to miss our loved ones."
Louis Korkames, who owned the van involved in the crash, was staying Monday at the Ronald McDonald House near Brackenridge with several other families of accident victims.
Also killed Sunday were Nina Wickenheiser, 17, and sisters Precious Oehler, 15, and Katrina Oehler, 14. Their mother, Carolyn Jeanne Oehler, 47, was in good condition Monday at Brackenridge Hospital.
Police have said the van's driver, Jesse Wickenheiser, the 18- year-old brother of Nina, may be charged with negligent homicide. He was in critical condition Monday.
The teenagers departed about a week ago from New Orleans, where the Family established a full-time residence about a year ago, and had traveled to Dallas, where Louis Korkames saw them while he was visiting his parents.
They arrived in Austin on Friday and made camp at McKinney Falls. They made trips into Austin to evangelize -- the main purpose of this and similar trips teen members of the Family take during the summer.
On Saturday afternoon, two members of the group knocked on Shelley Ruth Hamilton's apartment door in Northeast Austin.
After paying $10 for a tape of religious lullabies, Hamilton invited Kristina Noell and Carolyn Oehler into her home to cool off. They talked for about an hour.
"Kristina touched me; she was so beautiful," Hamilton said. "She told me how she liked to take care of little children. We were going to keep in touch."
The teens were registered at the park through Sunday night. Their ultimate destination was Laredo, where they were to disseminate the Spanish-language religious materials they were carrying in the van, Louis Korkames said.
As word of the tragedy filtered through the Family's loose-knit system of communes and centers across the world, church members fondly recalled the lives of the five girls:
- Precious Oehler: Always talking, the precocious and independent 15-year-old loved to dance and quickly set others at ease with a disarming charm, friends said.
"She was very cheerful and outgoing. She had a lot of spark," said Justin Cummings, 19, of Atlanta. Cummings met Precious at a Family house in Puerto Rico several years ago.
- Katrina Oehler: She emulated --Precious, who was one year older, but her brash personality was not lost in her sister's shadow.
"She's the character," Louis Korkames said. "(She was) bubbly, enthusiastic, testy, and a roughhouse, yet very tender with her younger brothers and sisters, very tender-hearted."
- Nina Wickenheiser: The 17-year-old Canadian loved to perform, whether it was singing hymns in nursing homes or acting out religious street theater in front of sometimes unappreciative teen-agers.
"She really had a heart for children," said Ian Curran, 24, of Houston, who met Wickenheiser in a Family home in Philadelphia about a year ago. "Every time the news showed the children in Bosnia or some that were hurt, she'd cry and pray for them."
- Kristina Noell: The third of nine children, the 16-year-old was a striking beauty with a sunny disposition.
"We called her Hope because she was sweet and hopeful," said Diamond Montgomery, 20, a friend of Kristina's who lives with Family members in Houston.
Having followed her missionary parents to Yugoslavia, Hungary, India and the Caribbean, Kristina was well-traveled.
"Kristina started her missionary life at the age of 4 when we went to Mexico," said Richard Noell, 44. "I actually have photos of a mike in her hand singing at a hospital. She was quite a singer."
- Victoria Korkames: Quiet and a bit shy, Victoria was the responsible one, the oldest of seven children.
"One quality I remember: she was always on the lookout for younger brothers and sisters," said Nathnael Parker, 18, of Atlanta.
On Monday the girls' families began making funeral arrangements.
Christie Richards, national spokeswoman for the Family in Houston, said many of the families live a frugal lifestyle andcannot afford funeral expenses or flights into Austin. She said the organization created the Family Teen Accident Relief Fund at Post Oak Bank, 910 Travis, Suite 1950, Houston, 77002.
None of the victims' bodies had been claimed by relatives or funeral homes late Monday, said Darlene Dunn of the Travis County medical examiner's office.
Staff writers Scott W. Wright, Nichole Monroe and Jim Phillips contributed to this report.
Those who died in the crash:
- Kristina Hope Noell, 16, Miami
- Nina T. Wickenheiser, 17, who was moving from South Burlington, VT., to Montreal
- Victoria Korkames, 14, who adresses in New Orleans and Ponchatoula, LA.
- Precious Oehler, 15, New Orleans
- Katrina Oehler, 14, New Orleans
- Rhonda Lynn Harris, 45, Cedar Creek
Those injured and their conditions:
- Jesse John Wicenheiser, 18, who was moving from South Burlington, VT., to Montreal, the driver of the van, critical.
- Carolyn Jeanne Oehler, 47, who has adresses in New Orleans and San Ysdiro, Calif.,, good.
- John Wickenheiser, 16, who was moving from South Burlington, VT., to Montreal, good.
- Stephen Philip Fisher, 17, Montreal, good.
- Juan David Otoyo Silva, 16, Smithfield, N.C., stable.
- Penelope Roza Itzel, 15, Tijuana, Mexico, stable.
- John Harris, 41, Cedar Creek, treated and released
Source: Austin Police Department
PHOTO, COLOR PHOTO
Caption: Rebecca McEntee; The intersection of Burleson Road and McKinney Falls Parkway was quiet Monday less than 24 hours after six people died in an accident described by emergen cy personnel as "horrific."