Passenger in fatal crash was on probation for DUI

Remembering victims
From right, Christina Engel, 20, Kyle Vogtlin, 21, and Matt Nygren, 18, joined others at the site of a deadly two-vehicle accident west of Cambridge that occurred Sunday to remember the victims Monday, April 26, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

One of the passengers in a crash that killed six people was on probation for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Travis Gryczkowski, 21, of Cambridge, was the only adult in the car driven by a 16-year-old girl, which crashed into an SUV early Sunday near Cambridge.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports it's unclear if Gryczkowski was drinking before the crash. He wasn't supposed to consume alcohol. But authorities believe alcohol may have been a factor in the crash, and detected the odor of alcohol in the car.

Gryczkowski and three Cambridge teens in her car were killed: Kelsee Blackledge, 15, Travis Buchan, 17, and Stephen Kendryna, 16.

Students at Cambridge-Isanti High School returned to class on Monday without the three classmates who were involved in that crash.

Two of the four teens who died in the crash were students at the school, and the driver, the lone survivor, is in the hospital. About two-thirds of their classmates wore black to honor the dead, Principal Mitchell Clausen said.

"I don't think they shake it off very quickly," Clausen said.

The driver, who hasn't yet been identified by authorities, was driving four other teenagers when the Pontiac Grand Am collided head-on with an SUV. The four passengers in the Pontiac were killed, along with the SUV's two occupants. The driver was injured and remains hospitalized.

A PREVENTABLE TRAGEDY

A day after the crash, authorities and advocates were already pointing to ways it might have been prevented.

The teen driver had received her license just three weeks before and was subject to Minnesota's Graduated License rules, meaning she shouldn't have been driving at that time of night. The teens who died apparently weren't wearing seat belts. And State Patrol investigators reported a strong smell of alcohol in the Pontiac after the crash.

Minn. traffic fatalities ages 16-20 (1994-2008)
This graphic shows Minnesota traffic fatalities involving those age 16-20 from 1994 to 2008. Data is from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
MPR Graphic/Steve Mullis

The circumstances of the crash weren't immediately clear, and the State Patrol said it could take weeks to reconstruct the crash.

But authorities were already stressing several things that apparently went wrong. They also urged people to educate themselves about the state's teen driving laws and asked parents to get involved.

"Parents are of utmost importance in communicating with their sons and daughters," said Gordy Pehrson, youth traffic safety and alcohol coordinator for the Department of Public Safety. "They need to understand what the risks are -- that their sons and daughters, just because they get their driver's license doesn't mean they're a proficient, safe driver."

Still, Pehrson said greater awareness is also needed among teens.

"The laws are there to protect people, but they have to be followed; they have to be understood," he said.

Crash site memorial
In this Sunday April 25, 2010 photo, Cambridge resident Curt Johnson places flowers along a highway where six people were killed in a two-car crash on the road about a half-mile west of downtown Cambridge, Minn. Johnson's grandchildren were friends with at least one of the teens killed.
AP Photo/St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris Polydoroff

Sunday's crash came after two other deadly crashes involving teen drivers: On Friday, a pickup truck driven by a 16-year old rolled into a ditch in Winona County, killing three teenage girls; on Saturday, another teen was killed in Onamia when she pulled onto Highway 169 and was broadsided by another car.

State Patrol Chief Col. Mark Dunaski, who has been on the patrol for 28 years, said he's seen weekends as bad as this one in terms of fatalities.

"But in terms of teenagers and multiple fatalities, I don't remember any like this," he said.

At Cambridge-Isanti High School, grief counselors were available, and officials were making plans for a memorial service for the victims.

PROM WON'T BE CANCELED

The crash came at a time when many high schools are preparing for prom. Clausen said Cambridge-Isanti students would still have theirs on Saturday, but he said school officials were already making plans to talk with students about safety -- just as they do every year.

"It will kind of hit the home a little more this year," he said.

High school administrators across the state will likely mention the recent crashes in pre-prom safety discussions with students, said Charles Kyte, director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

"The most poignant messages I'm sure will be in high schools that are having their prom this coming weekend," Kyte said.

Most schools at least share messages with their students before prom about the importance of seat belts and staying away from alcohol and drugs. Some hold organized assemblies, including ones in which local authorities reenact an accident involving drunken driving.

Cambridge-Isanti students just last year attended an assembly where a crashed car was on display.

While the number of fatal crashes involving teens has declined along with the total number of fatal crashes in Minnesota, authorities acknowledged there's only so much that can be done.

"We can't totally stop that, but we try to get as many messages of safety to the kids as possible so that they're not putting themselves more at risk than they should," Kyte said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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