Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Death by Mistake

This piece appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette on the evening of Whitney's death, March 17, 2009.

It was supposed to be just a quick trip

by Lance Benzel and Carlyn Ray Mitchell

Whitney Hendrickson left the west-side house she grew up in to get gas for her trip to the Mount Princeton Hot Springs, one stop on a tour of Colorado she planned for a college friend from Wisconsin.Her mother and sister waited at home, thinking that Hendrickson, 18, and her friend Julie Podair, 19, would be back soon so the group could enjoy a day tailor-made for two young women on spring break from Grinnell College in Iowa.

Minutes later, Hendrickson was gone.In a freak accident outside a 7-Eleven at 1428 W. Colorado Ave., the clever and outgoing college freshman who loved photography and drawing was killed when a pickup crashed into a gas pump and engulfed her minivan in flames.

Hendrickson, who was outside pumping gas, was trapped between the gas pump and her burning vehicle. Podair, who was uninjured, made a desperate attempt to push the vehicle away but was forced to retreat alongside several people who rushed to answer Hendrickson's frantic cries for help but were driven back by the searing heat.

Witnesses described a horrifying scene: A crash followed seconds later by a series of explosions that sent flames and smoke rising more than 20 feet in the air, singeing the canopy over the pumps."She was frozen in there, between the gas pumps and her car," said Michael Horvat, a health insurance broker who works across the street. "She was holding her face. Flames were all around her. She never got out."

He tried to approach the inferno with an extinguisher but an off-duty firefighter yelled at him to get back as the island erupted.Greg Alderman, who ran from the Trent Real Estate Group across the street, tried to enter the minivan, but the heat, and the potential for an explosion, made it impossible."I thought of my wife and three children," he said.

As he ran away, he heard another explosion reverberate behind him.Police said the crash happened about 12:40 p.m. when a red 2003 Ford Explorer heading southwest through the parking lot of the convenience store slammed into the right rear side of a 2008 Chevrolet Silverado pickup parked at a pump opposite Hendrickson.The impact forced the truck into the gas pump, which dislodged it and caused gasoline to spew out. The pump pinned Hendrickson against her minivan as the gasoline ignited.

Both the pickup and minivan went up in flames."In 28 years of doing this work and investigating traffic accidents, I've never seen a tragic accident like this," Colorado Springs police spokesman Lt. David Whitlock said.Firefighters arrived in two minutes, Whitlock said, and quickly extinguished the fire. Witnesses credited someone in the parking lot with dashing to the store to hit an emergency shutoff button outside the store.

The driver of the Ford Explorer, Kelli R. McKay, 29, of Colorado Springs, was cited on suspicion of careless driving involving a death, a Class 1 misdemeanor. She was served a summons to appear in court after being treated and released for minor bruises.

Three witnesses told The Gazette that McKay was shouting that her brakes had gone out, but police said that "vehicle malfunction" did not appear to play a role. Investigators used an onboard computer to perform a "vehicle autopsy."

Hendrickson is survived by her father, David Hendrickson, a political science professor at Colorado College, her mother, Clelia DeMoraes, a twin brother named Wesley, who is in his freshman year at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and younger sister 16-year-old Marina, a junior at Palmer.

Hours after the crash, friends gathered at the family home to mourn the 2008 Palmer High School graduate, recalling the beautiful nerd who had a rare combination of silliness, intellect and unfailing friendliness that captured those around her.

She spoke French and played lacrosse."She was just a very loving, happy person who loved life and lived it to the fullest," said her mother.

They remembered Hendrickson as a funny and outgoing woman who had an easy time making friends. She was an honors student in Palmer's International Baccalaureate program and enjoyed drawing, photography and art history and "blossomed" at college, her parents said.

David Hendrickson called his daughter a "very special" person and laughed when he recalled his daughter's Christmas gift to him last December - a humorous scrapbook linking him to embarrassing scandals from 2008. The gift was typical of her wit and imagination, he said.

From the start, David Hendrickson was enamored with his little girl who "had this way about her that was divine.""She had this special quality when she was actually very little. I was always struck by that. She emerged, even as a very little child, with all of these marvelous qualities. Always very sweet, never a cross word, very observant. And she developed this tremendous wit. She was really very funny."

Whitney Hendrickson chose to live life rather than worry over the meaning of it, David Hendrickson said.

"Everyone that she ever came into contact with loved her," said 18-year-old Dani Radoshevich, one of three friends from high school who journeyed with her to Grinnell. "Nobody had it in them to dislike someone who was so great."

Podair met Whitney Hendrickson at an orientation mixer. Both were short and both had fathers who were college professors. "We've been inseparable since," Podair said.

Whitney Hendrickson hadn't declared a major but was leaning toward art history and sociology, well-suited for the gifted, self-taught photographer who "understood people really well," Radoshevich said.

Radoshevich, Podair, another classmate, Mondo MontaƱo, and Whitney Hendrickson took the train from Iowa, arriving in Colorado Springs on Sunday.

The laughter David Hendrickson had known before his daughter went to school returned the moment Whitney and Podair arrived back at the Hendrickson home on West Pikes Peak Avenue.

Friends and family spent Tuesday night smiling over their memories of her rather than focusing on anger or sadness.

Born on the day David Hendrickson's first book came out, Whitney died the day his latest work was published, this one on international relations. He said it struck him that his work and her life were "continuous."

"I pictured her married with kids looking after her old man and being some famous artist to boot," David Hendrickson said. "She was on her way."

Correction by DCH. March 17, 2009, was indeed the publication date of my latest book: Union, Nation, or Empire--a strange and horrible conjuncture. The project of which this book was the fruit was begun when the twins were babies, and concluded as they reached maturity. But the earlier coincidence was different from what the Gazette described. Whitney, with her twin brother Wesley, was born on April 13, 1990, the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth. In that spring, with Robert W. Tucker, I published Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (my fourth rather than first book). I remember being amazed by the coincidence at the time: I was scheduled to give a paper on Jefferson at an academic conference but was held back by my wife's labor. And out came Whitney and Wesley on Jefferson's birthday, right at the moment when I was due to present my paper two time zones away. So both that miracle and this nightmare had these baffling conjunctures between work and family.