I don’t know what is going on in this world right now. This weekend was filled with senseless tragedy, both intentional and unintentional, across the nation. Yesterday I saw firsthand an unintentional tragedy and it breaks my heart for the community in which it occurred, as well as our hot rodding community. I have so many mixed emotions on how I should write this column, so I apologize ahead of time if it wanders.
On Saturday June 11, a group of my friends and I cruised up highway 64 to Selmer, Tennessee, for the Rockabilly Highway Revival Festival and car show. For some reason, we always seem to be able to come together for this show and we ended up with 17 cars making the trip! Although it was supposed to be hot later, it was a perfect morning to travel the 90 miles to the little town of Selmer.
Just as we came into the actual town of Selmer, the highway was blocked off with sawhorse barricades that directed us around the festival and into the car show area. Each car gets their photo taken in front of the mural on the side of a building before the terrific volunteers direct you where to park on the 4-lane highway with a turning lane down the middle. The highway provides great space for the cars and spectators to admire them and due to our later arrival we were parked down toward the barricades directing traffic around the festival.
It proved to be the first real hot day down here in the south as the humidity immediately made itself known. We set up our canopies on a nice family’s lawn who were happy to accommodate us and enjoy the festival in their front yard. As lunch approached the majority of our group went to eat lunch at one of the local eateries, while I stayed behind talking to some new and old friends.
I have met some great people through cars and it seemed like they were all there this weekend. I just met Stephen Mancuso on Wednesday and we became fast friend because of our mutual love of cars and I invited him along for the ride. We were talking with Tyrone Simmons from Jackson, Tennessee, who I had just met a few weeks before at a show there, when we heard a strange noise. Our day was about to turn sour!
We turned to see a mid 80’s Ford Crown Victoria blast through the plastic barrier. It wasn’t a show car and he was going way too fast to be part of it. What the hell? We immediately started screaming at the driver and the people in the street. As he passed us, we could tell it was an elderly man with both hands on the steering wheel looking straight ahead.
Five cars past us on the other side of the road, a pre-teen pushed a stroller out from in between two cars with her mother a step behind, not aware of our shouts. The Crown Vic was probably traveling 45 mph when it ripped the stroller out of the hands of the little girl, sticking it into the grill. Stephen jumped into action and ran to check on the girl and the mom and found that, by the grace of God, the mom had the baby in her arms, having just taken her out of the stroller not 30 seconds before. The little girl was obviously shaken, but physically fine.
One can only speculate on what was going on with the elderly driver behind the wheel as the car gained speed heading up the hill toward the main part of the festival where the bulk of people were enjoying the bands and shopping at the vendors. All of our screaming, which had traveled like a wave as people figured out what was going on, was in vain because of the band playing on the courthouse lawn.
From our vantage point looking up the street the car had moved to the center of the road after striking the stroller still attached to the right front and was gaining speed as it approached the crowd. The driver started back toward the right. We watched helplessly as two people walked across the crosswalk, completely unaware of the car careening toward them, neither one of them even turned their head. The impact was so violent, I take solace knowing they didn’t suffer and I turned my head because I couldn’t look anymore knowing there had to be more.
The music stopped and we could hear the screams of horror as the car continued on it’s trajectory all the way through the show where my friends had just left the restaurant to look at a silver C-10 at the other end of the show. The Crown Vic ricocheted off a 4-door ’60 Impala, then hit a side-by-side before heading straight for the truck they were looking at. Though one of them was grazed, cutting his hand, they were luckily able to dive out of the way as it completely destroyed the c-10 which finally brought it to a stop.
Emergency responders were on the scene before the car stopped smoking. The fire station was right across the street from where the first two people were struck. My friends checked on the driver and his passenger, who were both stunned but conscious, as the EMT’s arrived to take over. It was complete chaos down that end when people saw the baby stroller still attached to the front of the car and started searching for the missing baby, as well as making sure their friends were safe.
I started calling my friends who didn’t immediately answer – which scared the hell out of me, knowing they were probably in that area. Come to find out, they were busy helping and finally called me back to say how close it was. Obviously, the festival was immediately canceled and as news spread we found that the deceased were well known in our area. Michael Johnson (62), the owner of The Hot Rod Shop in nearby Corinth, Mississippi, was engaged to be married to Sherri King-Duncan (51). Mike was well known in the hot rod community around here for the high quality of cars coming out of his shop, as well as his kind demeanor to those he met. Friends who knew him said that Sherri was a perfect match.
I didn’t personally know Mike, but my dad was scheduled to have him work on his ’66 Fairlane next week and my friend Jeremy was talking to him earlier in the day about looking at his car at the show. He actually texted him after the event to try to reschedule with him not knowing it was Mike that was struck. I had plans to go down to do a piece on the work he was doing at his shop in Corinth. It is a pretty tight-knit community around this area; if you don’t personally know someone, you know someone who does.
This incident was truly a tragic event, but brings to light the problem of elderly drivers as we live longer. The driver of the Crown Vic was Aaron Stamey (92) and his wife Lois (91) was the passenger. Amazingly, both have been released from the hospital. Everyone will second guess everything that happened – like the placement of the barriers – but I’m afraid to say that the blame has to lie on the driver/passenger in this case. It is not confirmed, but I was told by a couple that know them well that he suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Plain and simple, Mr. Stamey had no business being behind the wheel of a 4,000 lb car in a diminished capacity. Yes, the barriers were no more than plastic sawhorses place a few feet apart, but the speed limit there was around 40 mph, and anyone could see that there was a festival going on; cars were parked diagonally along the curb lane and there were people everywhere.
I have not heard an official word on the cause, but it has been widely stated that Mr. Stamey thought he was hitting the brake pedal (which was obviously the gas pedal). I don’t know at which point he started to hit the “brake” pedal, but there was plenty of time that elapsed from the time he hit the barricade and then stroller, that a person of normal capacity would be able to figure out that they made the brake/gas mistake. I estimate the distance between the barricade to the stroller was about 60 yards, then another 1/10th of a mile to where he killed Mike and Sherri, then at least another 1/8th mile to the other end of the festival where the car came to rest.
If Mr. Stamey wasn’t of sound mind to make the decision that he wasn’t fit to drive, you would hope that someone would have taken the keys from him at some point. It is a difficult decision for every family to make. I know nothing of Mr. Stamey’s family or friends who might have been able to make that decision, or for that matter if there was anyone, but the cycle of life leads to diminished capabilities as people get older and at some point something has to be done.
I know that there are many elderly who are totally capable of driving without incident, so it is hard to say this, but I believe that elderly drivers should be tested. I don’t know what age that testing should start or exactly what the test should consist of – I’ll leave that to the experts – but this happens way to often and innocent people are often the victims. I understand that it can be considered “ageist,” but there is a reason that children are not allowed to drive – they don’t yet possess the mental capacity to handle the responsibility. As people age, their mental capacity often diminishes. Yes, there are examples at both ends of the spectrum where kids and elderly alike can drive perfectly fine, but kids have to wait until the legal age then take a test, and I think the elderly should be able to prove they are up to the task as well. Driving is not a right, it is a privilege and should be treated as such. If you ask me, I think everyone should be retested at some interval after they receive their license.
Two people lost their lives and many others will have to deal with what they saw for the rest of their lives. This could have been prevented.
My condolences go out to the families of Mike and Sherry as well as the community and everyone else who had to witness this horrifically senseless incident.
Photos courtesy of Stephanie Casey.