Three Minnesota College Students Killed in Car Crash

2:21 PM, May 18, 2005   |    comments
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Three Minnesota State-Mankato students died and five others were injured when the van they were driving to an engineering competition crossed a freeway median and collided with two oncoming tractor trailers. Police identified the dead students as Jamie Schlachter, 23, of Rochester, Minn.; Wesley Loutsch, 21, of Remsen, Iowa; and Chad Wilson, 20, of Rose Creek, Minn. Three other students were injured and hospitalized. They are Scott Eichmiller Rector, 22, of Vadanais Heights, Minn.; Ryan Thomas Schommer, 23, of Brooklyn Park, Minn.; and Benjamin John Gruenzner, 27, of Mankato, Minnesota. The students are being treated at Lakeland Hospital in St. Joseph, Michigan. At least one of the students is listed in critical condition. Michael Tichy, 23, and Gary Mead, 27, were both treated at the hospital and released. The group, which included seven students and one faculty member, was headed to Detroit via southwestern Michigan on Tuesday afternoon to compete in a Society of Automotive Engineers student competition. They were towing a Formula series racing car -- described by one school official as their pride and joy -- that they had built for the event. Chikaming Township Police Chief Jim Stormont said Wednesday he had spoken to student Gary Mead, 27, of Mankato, Minn., who was one of the two released from the hospital. "It's awful," Stormont said, adding that a second van from the university could see the whole crash unfold. Michael Cooper, a spokesman for the southern Minnesota university said the school is struggling with the deaths. "We really are devastated by it," Cooper said. "We're in shock, and obviously our hearts go out to the families." Township Police Officer George Knoll said the van was heading eastbound on Interstate 94 in Berrien County about 2:30 p.m. CDT when a trailer it was pulling began to fishtail, causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle. The van crossed the median and rolled several times into the path of westbound traffic and the two semis were unable to avoid hitting it, Knoll said. Two of the students in the van were pronounced dead at the scene and a third was pronounced dead at an area hospital, Knoll said. The semi drivers also were treated for minor injuries, Knoll said. Eastbound lanes were closed for about an hour following the crash, while westbound lanes remained closed for several hours, Knoll said. Another group of nine people from the university was following the van that crashed. Members of that group were not involved in the accident and were being flown back to Minnesota on Wednesday, Cooper said. Cooper said the group was towing a Formula series car that the students built for the competition in Detroit, an annual event that includes about 150 colleges and universities from across the country. "It was their pride and joy throughout the year," said John Frey, dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. "This is a very touching moment for all of us. It was one of those things that you never expect to happen." Cooper said the Society of Automotive Engineers had asked the school for 150 school decals they could put on the cars at the competition in memory of the dead students. The students had been planning, designing and building the single-seat car since August, often spending 25 to 30 hours on it each week. On Monday, they gathered at the university's Nelson Hall garage for last-minute modifications. In a statement, the university extended condolences to family members of the victims. "All were exceptional young people with bright futures," the statement said. "They were working on a project about which they were passionate. The formula SAE competition is an exceptional opportunity for the best in our Automotive Engineering Technology program to demonstrate their skills and talents." Cooper said most of the students were seniors. The university's graduation ceremony was held Saturday. Frey, university President Richard Davenport and professor Bruce Jones planned to fly to Michigan to be with the surviving students and their families.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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