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Holiday’s Human Toll Labor Day Renews Sorrow For Car Crash Survivors

Sat., Sept. 2, 1995

The sun shone brilliantly on a patchy field near Deer Park, but Kori Smith’s thoughts were fixed on the darkest moment of her life.

Last Labor Day weekend, her mother and 16-year-old boyfriend died when their pickup blew past a stop sign and slammed into an oncoming van.

Smith, 17, only stayed long enough Thursday to tie carnations to a fence surrounding the field where James Adams and her mother, Kim Jenson, were killed.

“It hurts,” she said, her face red from crying.

For most people, Labor Day weekend is a last chance for summer vacation.

For survivors of two crashes that killed seven people in Spokane County during last year’s holiday weekend, it will be the anniversary of devastating losses and a grim reminder that mistakes on the road can be fatal.

“For Spokane County, that was a deadly weekend,” said Sgt. Chris Powell of the Washington State Patrol. “That’s kind of unprecedented.”

Although a year has passed, the survivors still are healing.

This week, Smith, her boyfriend’s mother, Linda Dial, and another friend visited the intersection and field at Cedar and Deer Park-Milan roads where the accident occurred last Sept. 4.

In addition to Adams and Jenson, the accident killed 32-year-old Pamela Oestreicher, who was riding in the van. Oestreicher’s husband and four people in the pickup, all of the Spokane area, survived.

The other survivors in the pickup were Smith’s younger sister and cousins.

Washington State Patrol officials said Adams was driving the pickup. But Smith said she remembers her mom driving.

Smith was in the cab of the pickup and was thrown out during the crash. She and the others were heading to Diamond Lake for a day in the sun.

“I’ve tried to stay far away from here,” said Smith, who went back to the field to confront the past.

She’s nearly recovered from her physical injuries: a broken collarbone, punctured lung and liver and broken thumb. She was unconscious for two days after the accident and remembers nothing of the crash.

But she’s constantly reminded of her mother and boyfriend.

“It still hits me and I go hysterical,” Smith said. “The fact that my mom and my first love died at the same time really hits me hard.”

Smith sometimes talks about the accident with Dial, who wasn’t involved in the crash.

Dial has visited the field five times since the accident, including the day after her son’s funeral.

She believes there’s a lesson in her loss.

“People just need to know they need to be really careful,” Dial said.

She’s brought flowers to the field in memory of the three victims as a way to deal with the pain. Her religion also has helped her cope.

“James was a Christian so I know where he is,” she said.

The first accident during last year’s holiday weekend - a year ago today - killed four people after two cars collided on U.S. Highway 195, south of Spangle.

Killed were Ynona R. Miller, 37; Dorothy Woolverton, 72; Stanley J. Miller, 18, all of Potlatch, Idaho, and Steven R. Blake, 51, of Chewelah.

Three others survived, including Donald Miller and his now 4-year-old son.

Miller lost his oldest son, wife and mother-in-law in the crash.

In the hours after the accident, he vaguely remembers doctors telling him that his youngest son had survived and was in good shape.

Miller thinks his toddler’s survival inspired him to recover.

“I think if I would have lost him I would have given up,” he said. “I knew I had to make it.”

He said doctors called him a “miracle patient.”

“I went from a mental (vegetable) to almost fully functional in six weeks,” he said.

Miller suffered severe skull fractures, brain injuries, a shattered hip, collapsed lung and broken ankle.

Miller raises cattle in Potlatch. His wife, Ynona, worked as a custodian at Washington State University in Pullman.

He said he still expects his wife to come home from work in the afternoons.

“I still find myself looking for my wife to pull down the driveway,” he said.

Miller said he and his wife were enjoying the best years of their marriage before the crash.

“My wife and I were so super close,” he said. “She was my best friend, my lover, everything.”

Their son, Stanley, had enlisted in the National Guard and wanted to be a veterinarian.

“He was 18 years old and he’d give me a kiss on my bald head and say good night,” Miller said.

Miller tries to stay positive, especially because he has two teens and a young son to raise.

“I’ve only got the future. I can’t dwell in the past,” he said. “If I sat around and moped and cried, I would go nuts.”

Dial also has had to look to the future, even though she still thinks of her son constantly.

“When that happened to James, I wanted the whole world to stop and it doesn’t stop,” she said. “Life goes on and you have to go on, too.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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