Cheerleading coach among 3 killed in university van crash in Calif.’s eastern Sierra Nevada

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cheerleading coach among 3 killed in Calif. crash

BISHOP, Calif. — A California university mourned Tuesday after a fiery crash involving its cross-country teams killed three people and left 16 injured — many of them student-athletes — in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Four people remained hospitalized in extremely critical condition, California Highway Patrol Officer Dennis Cleland said. Two were airlifted to a medical center.

California Baptist University cheerleading coach Wendy Rice, 35, of Corona died when an out-of-control sport utility vehicle struck the van she was driving as the team headed to a high-altitude training camp in Mammoth on Monday night, the Riverside school said.

Two people in the SUV also died. Their names were not immediately released by the Inyo County coroner.

The close-knit university community was trying to cope with the grief and shock caused by the worst single accident in its history. Officials worked on a crisis response, and a memorial service could be held later.

“This kind of tragedy touches us in many ways,” university spokesman Mark Wyatt said.

Rice was starting her third year at the school, Wyatt said. She left a husband and two children.

“She was remembered for being loving and very caring,” Wyatt said. “And in fact, she was helping out with the cross-country team as a driver.”

The cause of the crash remained under investigation, but there was no evidence that alcohol or drugs were involved, Cleland said.

Three vans carrying about 45 members of the men’s and women’s cross-country teams were on northbound U.S. Highway 395 a few miles from Bishop when a southbound Ford SUV with five people inside drifted onto the shoulder. The SUV then veered back, overturned and rolled through the center divider, striking the van and bursting into flames, the CHP said.

A Subaru traveling behind the vans also hit the flaming SUV.

The people in the SUV may have been runners from the San Diego area, although it was unclear whether they were members of a team, Cleland said.

“They did have some athletic and running gear,” he said, adding that one of the SUV’s occupants was a minor.

A deputy pulled a man from the burning vehicle and went back for a second person who was screaming for help. The deputy couldn’t get back inside the SUV because of the flames and heat, according to a CHP report.

A third person who was burned and hurled from the SUV walked past the deputy then died on the pavement, the report said.

One student-athlete in the van and three people in the SUV were in extremely critical condition, Cleland said. The SUV patients had third-degree burns. They included two Encinitas men, ages 19 and 22.

The woman driving the Subaru suffered third-degree burns to her arm, Cleland said.

Two other students remained hospitalized in critical condition and three were being treated for multiple fractures. Wyatt said.

Students with serious injuries included Marissa Benson of Gresham, Ore.; Alicia Catamese of Corona; and Allissa Neimeyer of Temecula, who underwent surgery. the CHP said.

Six students were treated for minor injuries and released.

Students who were unharmed continued to the training camp and spent the night but cut short their scheduled weeklong stay and were expected to return to the school Tuesday.

The 4,100-student private university was mostly closed until the fall session begins on Sept. 1, although a few athletic and other programs continued.

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