By Janey Fugate
Every face on Washington and Lee University’s campus Tuesday seemed to reflect the tragic single-car car crash that killed 21-year-old senior Kelsey Durkin early that morning. The crash left three other students hospitalized as well.
Jon Talley, a Reformed University Fellowship minister, met with students affected by the crisis throughout the day.
“Tuesday was the most exhausting day of ministry of my whole life,” Talley said.
The university will hold a memorial service at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Lee Chapel.
Dean of Student Life David Leonard acknowledged the emotional shockwaves the tragedy sent through the W&L community.
“I’ve been blown away by the numerous emails I’ve received from young alumni, parents, and former RA’s,” said Leonard, referring to upperclass counselors who live in residence halls. “W&L’s community really comes together very well in times like this.”
About 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, 10 students were passengers in a 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe being driven back to campus from a party in the country. Virginia State Police spokesman Rob Carpentieri said the driver, W&L student Nicholas Perry Hansel, 21, lost control as he was southbound on Turkey Hill Road about seven miles from campus. Hansel hit a tree stump and the vehicle overturned, Carpentieri said.
Durkin, of New Canaan, Conn., was ejected from the vehicle and was pronounced dead at Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Lexington. Two other female students were taken to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and a male student was taken to a Roanoke hospital. Virginia E. Dixon, a sophomore from Oakton, Va., is listed in fair condition and Ellen K. Gleason, a junior from Santa Barbara, Calif., is listed in good condition. Thomas R. Wall V, a junior from New York City, is listed in good condition at Roanoke Memorial Hospital.
Hansel, a junior, was charged with driving under the influence and refusing to submit to a drug and alcohol test, Carpentieri said. He was released from the Rockbridge County jail Wednesday morning on a $5,000 secure bond.
Other students at the party said there were designated sober drivers for the party, but Hansel was not one of them.
Virginia State Police are investigating whether additional charges will be filed against Hansel.
Students held a candlelight vigil for Durkin outside Lee Chapel on campus Tuesday night. A well known and respected Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority member, Durkin was also remembered as a trip leader for Volunteer Venture, a part of first-year orientation.
In the small, closely knit W&L community, practically everyone had some connection to the students involved in the crash. Student Body President Nathan Kelly said the strength of the university’s traditions and community shine in such hardships.
“Because of the honor system, we live in a community that is uniquely for each other,” Kelly said. “There is no greater reflection of that then these past 12 hours.”
As the initial shock wore off for most on campus, students, faculty and administrators began to assess the full extent of the tragedy’s impact.
Dean of Students Sidney Evans said the school will investigate whether the incident was solely the consequence of one individual’s decision or if the fraternity hosting the party, violated a policy or was negligent in some way. That will determine which student disciplinary group, if any, gets involved. The Student Judicial Council handles individual substance abuse infractions, and the Interfraternity Council hears cases involving entire fraternities.
But the school’s immediate concern, Evans said, is to navigate the emotional aftermath of the crash.
“Right now we are just focusing on the kids who were hurt,” she said.
Administrators, faculty and older students vividly remember a similar crash that occurred three years ago this month. Six students headed back to campus from a party in the country were involved in a single-vehicle crash when the driver lost control near Lexington. The driver was unharmed, but two students were severely injured.
In that case, 20-year-old Christopher Michael Hanson pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and spent 15 days in jail. He withdrew from school and the university suspended the fraternity that threw the party, Dean Leonard said.
The university discourages fraternities from throwing parties during the week before final exams, which might be why Monday night’s party was held at a house so far out in the country, Leonard said.
Washington and Lee has taken steps in recent years to educate students about the risks involved with alcohol. First-years are required to attend a robust orientation program on alcohol and individual decision-making, Leonard said. But he said this most recent incident will initiate more conversations within the administration on alcohol policy and education.
Talley, of the Reformed University Fellowship, is among many in the university community who hope the most recent tragedy will finally mark a shift away from a campus culture that they say condones a social scene that revolves around alcohol.
“Can we have an eye to the future to see what possible good, what changes might come from something tragic?” he said.