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After the Accident

Golf helps Long Beach Wilson's Tangtiphaiboontana keep life on course, nearly a year after both parents die in crash

October 21, 2002|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Jenni Tangtiphaiboontana plays golf because it helps her to remember -- and because it allows her to forget. She plays because her parents dreamed she would someday make it to the top and, even though they are not here to see it anymore, she wants to make them proud.

Ittisak and Uthaivan Tangtiphaiboontana were driving Jenni and a Long Beach Wilson High teammate home from the Southern Section team golf championships in Calimesa last November when they died in a single-car accident.

For Jenni, a highly ranked player on the national golf American Junior Golf Assn. circuit before the accident, the game she learned at age 8 has become a refuge, a focal point to channel her grief.

She sustained cuts and bruises in the accident but was playing in a tournament three weeks later. Last month, she was runner-up in the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, junior golf's premier event. And now that school has started, she has reclaimed her spot as the top player (her average is under par) on Southern California's best girls' team.

Observers marvel at her composure, her toughness. But Jenni, 17, isn't sure about that.

"Everyone says I'm doing well, so I guess I'm doing pretty well," she said. "But I don't know if I am. People are always like, 'Wow, you're pretty strong.' Maybe. I've managed to convince myself that I'm strong and put on a smile."

*

The night before the accident, the Wilson girls' golf team stayed in a hotel near the PGA of Southern California Golf Club in Calimesa. Dianne Sirisut, a teammate, wanted Jenni to stay in her room, but Jenni chose to remain with her parents. Her father had been released from the hospital 11 days earlier after suffering a minor stroke.

"Something told me I should stay with them," she said.

The next morning, Jenni shot 69 and Wilson finished second in the section championship. As her mother drove them away from the course, they all talked about the round -- how happy they were for Jenni and how frustrating it was to lose by a stroke -- before Jenni and Sirisut dozed off in the back seat.

About 3:30 p.m., their sports utility vehicle apparently hit the center divider, swerved across the westbound Pomona Freeway and tumbled down an embankment, rolling over and landing right-side up on a street below.

Jenni was trapped by the crushed roof of the car. Sirisut was conscious, but Jenni wasn't sure about her parents.

"I couldn't really see my dad," she said. "My mom was resting on the seat and I thought she moved. I thought she was still alive."

But as rescuers began cutting away at the car to free Jenni and Sirisut, paramedics placed blankets over the bodies of Jenni's parents.

Jenni still isn't sure what caused the accident. California Highway Patrol officers speculated that Uthaivan fell asleep at the wheel, but they can't be sure. The accident report lists driver error as the cause.

"The only thing I want to know is what really happened," Jenni said.

*

For the first month or so after the accident, just about everything reminded Jenni of her parents. Now it's little things that sometimes catch her off guard: A question that her father, a history buff, would surely be able to answer; a television show she used to watch with her mother.

Recently, Jenni had the braces on her teeth removed -- a special day for any 17-year-old. But when she returned home from the orthodontist, her parents weren't there to see her smile.

Jenni said she misses her parents most "when I'm stressed." Lately, it's the college recruiting process that has her anxious. She has stacks of letters from colleges, but nothing from the places she'd like to hear from most.

Talking to her older brother, Tommy, helps. A junior who plays on the Yale golf team, Tommy was, for years, Jenni's practice partner. Though now separated by thousands of miles, they are closer than ever.

"My mom always wanted me to call home every night," Tommy said. "It used to be a hassle, but now I don't think of it like that anymore."

Since shortly after the accident, Jenni has lived with the Panichpakdee family across town from her family home in Long Beach. Pete Panichpakdee was a childhood friend of Ittisak in Thailand. They remained close after both immigrated to Long Beach.

Pete and his wife, Ku, have four children ages 13-20. Two of them played golf at Wilson, including Ryan, 18, who won the Moore League boys' title as a senior last spring. Jenni calls Pete and Ku uncle and aunt.

A few miles away, renters occupy the house where the Tangtiphaiboontana family used to live. Jenni and Tommy now own it and Jenni occasionally drives by, just to have a look.

"I really miss the garden," she said. "We had lots of fruit trees -- a lime tree, a nectarine tree, an orange tree -- and they were really good."

Most of Jenni's belongings are in storage, but she kept four photos of her family for her new room. She drives to Corona del Mar once a week to visit her parents' ashes.

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