Gathering Pieces of Shattered Lives
Sorrow sets in for families after crash
By LEIGH HOPPER AND CLAIRE OSBORN
A stone cottage in the country with a hammock out front. Goats to tend, fences to build. Students to teach, children to raise.
The details of John Harris' broken dream are scattered like shards of glass. Harris' wife, Rhonda, 45, died in Sunday's accident near McKinney Falls State Park when a van carrying 11 members of a religious group ran a stop sign and broadsided Harris' pickup as it was crossing the intersection of McKinney Falls Parkway and Burleson Road.
"It's going to be very hard to go on without her," Harris, 41, said Tuesday at his Cedar Creek home in Bastrop County. "I've been divorced. I didn't know you could actually perfectly match with someone. It's just been ... I don't know. We were happy, and I don't think I ever will be again."
Five teen-age girls who were riding in the van also were killed in the crash.
Speaking steadily and slowly, three fathers of the girls, who were members of the Family, a nondenominational religious group, talked of their own losses at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the Children's Hospital of Austin at Brackenridge.
"There are things you can't express if you say it in words or put it on TV. We're still shocked. She died very young," said Mark Wickenheiser, whose 17-year old daughter, Nina, died in the accident. His son Jesse, whose daughters Precious, 15, and Katrina, 14, also were killed in the accident, said he was grateful for the support the families had gotten from the hospital and from Austin, including one woman who wrote a poem to his wife, Carolyn, who also was injured in the crash.
He said if there was a lesson to be learned from the tragedy, it was to always wear seat belts. None of the people in the van were wearing them.
John Harris said his friends, co-workers and relatives are looking after him. But a visit with Harris is a lesson in how a life can be torn apart in a split second.
He and Rhonda married seven years ago and moved to Texas shortly after, he said. It was a second marriage for each. They had four children in their "blended" family, ages 12, 14 and two 20-year-olds.
John, a big, gentle-looking man with a dark beard, went to work for Pittencrieff Communications Inc. in Austin after serving 20 years in the military. Rhonda was a substitute teacher for troubled kids in the Bastrop Independent School District. She loved animals, big and small.
"Anything that ... couldn't fend for itself," John said, his voice breaking.
They did everything together, he said. She dug the post-holes, John helped build the fence. On Sunday, he invited Rhonda along to buy some cement at McCoy's, and she left her glasses on the table in themiddle of a jigsaw puzzle she'd just begun.
On the way home -- the crash came. John Harris, who received minor injuries, was able to undo Rhonda's seat belt before an emergency medical worker took over. He knew she was hurt badly, but didn't realize how bad. She died later at Brackenridge Hospital.
"There was another man there -- if he reads this I hope he gets in touch with me. Huge guy. He said he lived close and he'd seen the wreck. And he came over and he prayed for me," Harris said.
Austin police Sgt. Sam Cox said Harris told investigators the van was traveling at least 40 miles per hour.
"And the crash indicates that," Cox said, based on the force of the impact. "It just blew through the stop sign."
The speed limit on McKinney Falls Parkway before it intersects with Burleson Road is 35 mph.
Based on the positions of the vehicles after the crash, photos from the scene and other evidence, "I feel very, very confident that the van came through that stop sign at a very imprudent rate of speed," Cox said.
Cox said the evidence probably will lead to a criminal charge such as negligent homicide, a felony punishable by up to two years in jail.
"It's not going to be hard to prove he went through the stop sign," Cox said.
Cox said proving the speed of the van may be difficult, but said, "I don't think the grand jury will have a whole lot of trouble establishing there was a violation of the law and it resulted in six deaths."
Thomas Oehler said none of the survivors could remember much about what happened. Oehler said his wife, Carolyn, who was in the front seat of the van, told him she ``blacked out when the accident happened.
Thomas Oehler said his wife may be released from the hospital today.
Louis Korkames, whose daughter Victoria died in the wreck, said the van couldn't have been speeding because it had been on the road for only a few minutes before the accident happened.
Thomas Oehler and Mark Wickenheiser said they had ridden with Jesse Wickenheiser and that he was a careful driver.
Mark Wickenheiser, when asked what he thought about the possibility of Jesse Wickenheiser being charged with negligent homicide, said he and the other fathers still had questions about the accident.
"We're still looking for answers," Mark Wickenheiser said.
John Harris said he has not heard from anyone from the religious group. "I don't know if it would be appropriate or not (for them to call)," he said. "That's for God to decide and for them to decide if they want to. Loss of life like that is just horrible."
The day of the crash was also Rhonda Harris' birthday. A cheesecake with a red candle was waiting at home in the refrigerator. On Monday, she and her husband were going to Georgetown to buy her a horse.
But they never got to celebrate.
"She loved it here and wanted to stay here. It's like she'd had a premonition the last few months that something was going to happen," John said.
"(She said) `If anything happens, bury me in Texas. I want to stay here.' But we thought it was going to be 30 or 40 years down the road."
Burial arrangements for Harris are pending with Marrs Jones Newby Funeral Home in Bastrop.
Although the five girls in the van who died were from Canada, New Orleans and Florida, they will be buried together in Austin, said Christie Richards, a spokeswoman for the Family.
"What's important is that the girls are in heaven; it's not as important exactly the place where they are buried," Richards said.
The funeral will be Thursday or Friday, and arrangements will be handled by Austin-Peel and Son Funeral Home. Contributions for the teens' funeral expenses can be sent to the funeral home, 8507 N. Interstate 35, Austin 78753 or to Family Teen Accident Relief Fund, Post Oak Bank, 910 Travis Suite 1950, Houston, TX 77002.
Staff writer Jim Phillips contributed to this report.
COLOR PHOTOS, PHOTO
Caption: Ted S. Warren, Larry Kolvoord; John Harris did everything with his wife, Rhonda, who died in the tragic collision Sunday near McKinney Falls State Park. The pickup the two were riding in was struck by a van carry ing members of nondemoninational religious group the Fam ily. Harris' friends and relatives are looking after him, but he says, "We were happy, and I don't think I ever will be again."; Rhonda Harris was celebrating her 45th birthday Sunday when tragedy struck.; Mark Wickenheiser, Louis Korkames and Thomas Oehler look on as Christie Richards, spokeswoman for the Family, addresses a news conference at the Children's Hospital of Austin at Brackenridge. The three men, fathers of teen-age girls killed in the crash, spoke about dealing with the loss of their daughters. "There are things you can't express if you say it in words or put it on TV," Wickenheiser said.