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O.C. Youth Dead, Two Hurt Critically in Crash

Accident: Eight of 10 Newport Harbor High schoolmates thrown from vehicle. Deputies stopped group earlier, witness says.

May 24, 1997|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — A Chevrolet Blazer packed with 10 Newport Harbor High School students flipped early Friday on a winding stretch of road, ejecting eight passengers and leaving one youth dead and two others in critical condition.

A night of partying ended in grisly tragedy for the teens when the driver of the Blazer, Jason Andrew Rausch, 18, apparently lost control while speeding on a curve on Irvine Avenue next to Upper Newport Bay, police said.

Rausch was the designated driver for the group in the sport utility vehicle, which according to a witness had been stopped by Orange County Sheriff's deputies about an hour earlier. Deputies told the occupants to empty their alcoholic drinks but then let the group proceed, Hunter said.

The driver did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the crash scene, said Newport Beach Police Lt. Doug Fletcher. Rausch was released on $10,000 bail Friday after being arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter.

Donald "Donnie" Bridgman, also 18, died at the scene after he was thrown from the vehicle, which had its roof peeled back by the crash. Daniel Townsend, 18, and a 17-year-old girl who was not identified, were hospitalized and in critical condition Friday.

Three others in the truck were in stable condition Friday at two hospitals, but police were withholding their names because they are juveniles. The students in the truck were six males, all 17 or 18, and four females, all 16 or 17.

Friends who were following the Blazer in a second car said the group had been stopped by deputies less than an hour earlier in front of a Santa Ana Heights house where neighbors had complained about a noisy party.

"They made everybody get out and empty out the alcohol they had, all the beer," said Jennifer Jason Rausch

Hunter, a 16-year-old friend who was about 150 feet behind the Blazer when it toppled. "Then they just let everybody go."

Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Tom Garner said his agency began reviewing Friday all the logs of deputies on duty at the time. "We're looking into it, but we have no specific information yet," Garner said.

While officials withheld the names of juveniles involved, both Hunter and Newport Harbor's Associated Student Body President Reagan Roney identified them as Amanda Arthur, Davon Carrols, Eric Freeman, Heidi Funderburk, Kevy McNeal, David McMillen and William Watson.

The fact that eight people were ejected from a spinning truck and only one was killed was something of a small miracle, police said. "That's a blessing at least," Fletcher said.

The news of Bridgman's death sent shock waves through the 1,800-member student body at Newport Harbor High, where the teen was described by classmates and faculty as a bright, handsome youth with a warm sense of humor--evidenced by the Elvis Presley impersonator he recently hired to serenade his girlfriend, presenting her with flowers and a prom invitation.

"It's very scary and very permanent," said Dana Black, a board member with the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the parent of a freshman at Newport Harbor High. "It's like losing someone in your own family. The kids are just devastated, in shock. . . . We're heartbroken."

*

Red-eyed and clinging to one other in grief, students gathered Friday--a teacher's work day on the campus and a day off for students--at the school and at the scene of the crash, where broken glass, debris and tire marks on a grass median marked the site.

School officials said counselors from throughout the school district would visit campus Tuesday to counsel students. Principal Gary Norton also said memorial ceremonies would be added to prom and graduation events in upcoming weeks.

Some groups of sobbing students also visited the Bridgman home, just a block from the school. Consoling them, the honor student's mother spoke in a halting voice about her son's short life and abrupt death.

"He did more, lived more than 90% of the people in the world," said Vickie Bridgman, an Orange County deputy district attorney. "Bungee-jumping, snowboarding, Cancun, Costa Rica, Alaska, he went all over Mexico, everything."

Inside the Bridgman home on Friday, there was no furniture sitting on the bare hardwood floors--a recent flood in the house had destroyed or damaged all of it. Vickie Bridgman, whose husband is also an attorney, said the home's proverbial white picket fence now only suggests the good life that the family enjoyed until recently.

"You ask, 'What happened to the perfect life?' " the grieving mother said as she looked at a photo of her beaming son.

*

The Blazer belongs to the Bridgmans, but Rausch was driving because everyone else was drinking beer, Hunter said. Vickie Bridgman said the husky vehicle has a comfortable capacity for only four or five people.

Only two occupants of the Blazer--one of them Rausch--were wearing seat belts when the vehicle flipped after hitting a center divider on Irvine Avenue, north of Heather Lane, police said.

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