Youth group tragedy - 6 die when truck collides with van carrying religious campers
By Leigh Hopper and Jodi Berls
The ingredients of an idyllic summer day -- camping, swimming and the celebration of a birthday -- turned into a nightmare Sunday afternoon when six people died in a two-vehicle wreck described by Austin officials as one of Austin's worst ever.
Five of those killed were teen-age members of an international religious group, traveling from New Orleans to Laredo on an evangelical trip. The group stopped to camp at McKinney Falls State Park in Southeast Austin. Police said the van the group was riding in ran a stop sign and struck a pickup. The sixth person killed, who had been in the pickup, was celebrating her 45th birthday.
"It was a difficult scene to work," said Jim Persons, a spokesman for Austin Emergency Medical Services. "Patients were stacked on top of each other, and there were additional patients under the van itself."
Group members killed in the wreck were Precious Oehler, 15, and Katrina Oehler, 14, of New Orleans; Nina Wickenheiser, 17, whose last known address was in Montreal; Victoria Korkahms, no age available, who is believed to be from New Orleans; and a 16-year-old girl whose address has not been determined.
The two people in the truck were identified as John and Rhonda L. Harrisfrom the small Bastrop County community of Cedar Creek. Rhonda Harris, 45, died later Sunday at Brackenridge Hospital.
The driver of the van, whose identity was not known, could face charges of negligent homicide, police said.
Survivors said those riding in the van were members of the Family, a nondenominational Christian-based group, police said. Investigators believe Wickenheiser may have been moving to New Orleans.
Witnesses said the van, carrying 11 teen-agers and traveling north on McKinney Falls Parkway about 12:55 p.m., ran a stop sign or failed to yield and broadsided a pickup truck.
The Harrises, who were returning home from McCoy's Lumber Yard, were headed east on Burleson Road. The pickup landed in the weeds along the roadside; the crumpled van, filled with passengers, Bibles, pamphlets and luggage, rested on its side.
Four victims from the van, all females, were pronounced dead at the scene. Four others were taken by STAR Flight helicopter to Brackenridge Hospital, where one later died. Five others were taken by ambulance.
Late Sunday, two patients were listed in critical condition. "It is difficult to survive for a long time with severe head and chest injuries," said surgeon Dr. Clyde Smith.
Hospital officials reported that two other patients remained in serious condition, two were listed in good condition and one was listed as stable, which is between serious and good.
Christie Richards, spokeswoman for the Family's U.S. headquarters in Houston, said, "I believe they were on a summer trip just seeing the sights. We like to do that with our teens during the summer--take trips, see America."
Persons estimate it took 15 minutes for medical personnel to reach the first live victim in the crumpled van. The victims suffered multiple broken bones, open and closed head injuries, chest wounds, and abdominal injuries; they also were having dificulty breathing.
Two jaws of life hydraulic prying devices had to be used to extricate everyone.
Police said it appeared everyone in the van, which had Louisiana license plates, was between the ages of 14 and 18 and no one was wearing a seat belt. Police said there was no evidence of alcohol or drugs.
The Harrises were wearing seat belts, authorities said.
George Phifer, a former acting Austin Police Department chief of police who retired in 1992, said he does not remember an accident quite as deadly in recent Austin history.
"This one sounds as bad as any in recent times I can recall," Phifer said. "I think one time about 25 to 30 years ago there was a bus accident in Northwest Austin where a large number of people were killed."
The group members in Sunday's wreck had been camping at McKinney Falls State Park since Friday, at a site registered to Jessie Wickenheiser, who gave park officials an address in Montreal. A park employee, who said Sunday the group had registered for another night, said members had guitars and other musical instruments with them.
Residents near the intersection of McKinney Falls Parkway and Burleson Road, where the speed limit is 40 mph, say accidents there are common.
"That intersection is really, really bad," said park employee Shalimar Arnold. "There's a stop sign at McKinney Falls, but Burleson is straight through."
Residents say that even when people do stop at the sign, the tall grass along the side of the road makes it difficult to see oncoming traffic. Neighbors have petitioned Austin and Travis County officials for a traffic light, said resident John Bilski.
Indeed, the intersection is the most dangerous one on Burleson Road, according to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Last year, 42 accidents occurred on Burleson Road -- 23 of them involving injuries, though none of them fatal. The intersection with the most accidents was Burleson at McKinney Falls roads, where six wrecks occurred in 1994.
Of the six accidents at Burleson and McKinney Falls roads last year, two resulted from drivers who disregarded the stop sign there. In three other accidents, drivers had failed to yield right of way.
Four of the wrecks involved injuries; all the accidents happened during daylight. Two were three-vehicle collisions, three were two-vehicle collisions, and one involved a vehicle hitting a fixed object, according to accident records. Two of the six accidents happened in the summer, June and August. "Maybe now they'll put in a light," said Bilski. "Let's consider safety, not politics."
After the accident, the Christian group's campsite was deserted, with two tents still standing, towels hung on a clothesline to dry and dishes washed and neatly stacked.
Staff writers Chuck Lindell, Starita Smith, Claire Osborn and Jeff South contributed to this report.
How it happened
1. Van traveling north on McKinney Falls Parkway, carrying 11 people.
2. Pickup truck traveling east on Burleson Road, carrying two people.
3. Van runs stop sign and collides with truck.
4. The van rolls over and comes to rest on its side; the truck is
barely visible in tall grass.
Caption: Jay Carr; Larry Kolvoord; The members of the Christian-based group the Family who were killed or injured in the collision on Burleson Road had rented this campsite at McKinney Falls State Park. Towels hung drying on lines and dishes were stacked neatly in a plastic tub on a picnic table near three dome tents.