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Tragic Turn

On a Perilous Stretch of U.S. 287, a Crash Claims the Lives of Eight Members of the Wyoming Cross-Country Team, and a Member of the School's Rodeo Team Faces Drunk-Driving Charges and 160 Years in Prison

September 30, 2001|TIM DAHLBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TIE SIDING, Wyo. — Behind a fence that keeps his German shepherd at bay, Pat Harnden has a clear view of one of the deadliest roads around.

The 74-year-old man with a face as weathered as the landscape sometimes stands in this wind-swept spot for hours, watching from under his cowboy hat as cars whiz by and wondering just what it is about this stretch of U.S. 287.

On a good day, the highway can cut 15 minutes off the trip between Fort Collins, Colo., and Laramie, Wyo. In a few seconds on one horrific night last week, it cut short the lives of eight young University of Wyoming athletes.

From his roadside perch in the rugged high plains 17 miles south of Laramie, Harnden can almost make out the crosses across the road where others died in past wrecks. They're joined now by a bouquet of yellow flowers taped to a cattle fence with a card that says, "You're in our hearts forever."

Along with some piles of glass swept off the roadway and a few twisted pieces of metal, the card is a sad reminder of the wreck that killed sons, classmates, running partners and fraternity brothers.

Members of the cross country team, they had run together the day before in the hills outside Laramie. Crammed into a sport utility vehicle, they died together in a collision with a pickup truck that peeled the SUV apart and sent bodies flying into the darkness.

"The car basically exploded," Wyoming athletic director Lee Moon said.

The crash didn't wake Harnden. Hard of hearing, he slept through it in his tiny trailer just a few hundred yards away.

He'd seen it before. But never were there so many, so young, their lives snuffed out in their prime.

"There's just something wrong with that spot," Harnden said. "I've tried to figure it out, but I can't. I just know there's been a lot of people killed there."

*

Tragedy seems to haunt the athletic department of the university that dominates the roughhewn town of Laramie, which straddles Interstate 80 just above the Colorado border into Wyoming. The town is the kind of place where strangers say "howdy," almost everyone drives pickup trucks and the liquor stores have drive-through windows.

A former cross country star disappeared in 1997 while out running and still has not been found. The same year, a Wyoming football player died after passing out on the practice field and an assistant football coach died of brain cancer.

But it's on U.S. 287 where much of the grief has occurred.

The Wyoming Cowboys' volleyball coach, Mike English, died in November from brain injuries suffered seven years earlier in a crash on the road. Former Cowboys golfer Mike Phillips died there in 1998.

There is more. Football player Greg Wilson was killed in 1984 while hurrying back for a spring practice session, and women's basketball player Nichole Rider walks with a cane now because of severe injuries from a 1985 accident. The wife and daughter of an assistant football coach were seriously injured in 1992.

"It's amazing how many have been lost on that road," university president Philip Dubois said. "The road is notoriously dangerous, especially in the winter and especially at night. It's just a crap shoot if you drive in the winter, and many of us won't drive it at all."

The Wyoming Department of Transportation wants to widen the road to four lanes, but has yet to fund it. They also plan to post signs telling people to pay attention to their driving.

Department statistics show 19 people died in the 21 miles between Laramie and the Colorado border between 1990 and May 2001.

Still, in the early morning of Sept. 16 the 65-mile stretch of highway seemed the easiest way for eight cross country runners to get home. They had gone to the bigger town of Fort Collins to look for running shoes and visit some clubs.

Heading the other way on the highway was another student, 21-year-old Clinton Haskins, a steer wrestler on the rodeo team. Haskins was driving a 1-ton pickup, on his way to see a girlfriend in Fort Collins.

There was light fog in the area when Haskins came around the slight bend in the road at Tie Sidings, a former railroad stop that now is nothing more than a post office and a rickety fireworks stand.

A hundred yards or so past Harnden's trailer, Haskins drifted over into the oncoming lane, the passenger side of his truck slamming head on into the other vehicle. The collision was so violent it ripped the top off the SUV, sending young bodies flying.

The driver, 20-year-old Nicholas J. Schabron, was wearing a seat belt, as was the front seat passenger. The others weren't, but it probably wouldn't have mattered.

Schabron was killed instantly, as were Shane Shatto, 19; Justin Lambert-Belanger, 20; Kyle N. Johnson, 20; Kevin L. Salverson, 19; Joshua D. Jones, 22; Morgan McLeland, 21; and Cody B. Brown, 21.

Two days earlier, 3,000 students had gathered in the campus mall to grieve for the victims of the terrorist attacks. Now the grief had come much closer to home, and in shocking numbers.

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