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Twenty years. 7,300 days. It’s a little weird. In some ways, it seems like yesterday. In others, it was a lifetime ago.
On September 20, 2003, five children ages 10-14 were killed when a car struck the ATV they were riding. You know the story. There’s no need to rehash it in detail here. The children who lost their lives were Lindsay Joyner, 13; Meagan Nelson, 14; Courtney Arsenault, 10; and siblings Dustin (11) and Kayla (13) Varnedore. All were from Douglas except Courtney, who was from Alma. A sixth child, Heather Bass, at the time 13, survived but suffered serious injuries.
I remember that day well. I was shocked but I did not fully appreciate the depths of the disaster. At that time, I did not have children. While the deaths of those children left me stunned, I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the tragedy until I had children of my own. I remember seeing parents hug their children. I saw others break down and cry at the mere mention of the accident. I didn’t understand. It’s something you can’t until you’re a parent yourself.
I heard stories from that night. I knew first responders who described the accident scene. I knew people who were at Coffee Regional Medical Center when the victims arrived. The very thought of what I learned as the ambulances pulled into the emergency room are images I cannot shake two decades later.
I often think about those children, where they would be if they were still with us. I also often think of the series of events that led the various parties involved being in that exact spot on Smith Cemetery Road at the same time.
We covered the trial and the sentencing. I try to stay away from the blame game. Lots of people made lots of decisions that night — and everyone involved would make different decisions if they could. We don’t, however, have that luxury. Life doesn’t give do-overs in situations like this.
Even with all the twists and turns, the Monday morning quarterbacking, the questions that have no answers, the one thing I never want to forget is the victims. Each of those children were taken from us far, far too soon. Where would they be today? What would they have accomplished? They would be 30-34 years old, most likely with children of their own. What kind of impact would they have made on their communities and families?
The one thing that this accident did leave me with is a distrust of ATVs. Every time I see a golf cart, side by side, four-wheeler, or other such vehicle on the road, especially when children are driving (and particularly when they’re driving without adult supervision), I get terrified. Most of the time, nothing will happen. The kids will enjoy the freedom the ATVs offer and they’ll get home safely.
But, I can’t help but think, what if . . .? It’s happened since that Saturday night 20 years ago. Not to that magnitude. But it has happened. People have lost their lives to ATVs and side by sides. They’ve suffered catastrophic injuries. Each time, I think back to September 20, 2003, and Smith Cemetery Road.
Everyone involved in that accident suffered. No one came away the same. The survivors saw the courses of their lives altered forever. Everyone lost something.
It is the very definition of a tragedy.
Lindsay, Kayla, Dustin, Courtney, and Meagan — it’s been 20 years. Know that you made an impact in the short time that you were with us. And know that you have never been forgotten. And you never will be.
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