Wyoming remembers student-athletes ten years after fatal crash
LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) -- The people of Wyoming were still coming to grips with the unthinkable events of Sept. 11, 2001, when another tragedy hit and rattled the state to the core.
Five days after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, eight members of the University of Wyoming cross country team were killed when their SUV was hit by a truck driven by a fellow student, who was driving drunk.
"You're going through thinking about are we going to war, what's going to happen and then five days later my world changed," said Kerry Shatto, whose son died in the crash. He recalled talking to his son about the Sept. 11 attacks and how Shane and others on the team were planning to donate blood.
Ten years later, the legacy of the crash that killed more than half of the 15-member squad lingers at Wyoming.
"9/11 was horrible," Sara Axelson, vice president of student affairs, said Thursday. "It's something that faces our country and our world for that matter, but to lose eight students is something that no university can take lightly. It was one of the saddest points in our history. ... In the university community, it was devastating and it continues to be."
The deaths have been honored through scholarships, campus memorials and other tributes - but nothing has been more significant than a drinking awareness program expanded in the aftermath of the tragedy.
"We've got a significant program in place that we're proud of and that has made great strides. And we're not going to let up," Axelson said. "It's something we got to make sure we keep ever-present in our programming and in our work with students."
In 2002, the university started a coalition with the Laramie community that addresses alcohol issues. And since 2007, every new UW student must participate in an online alcohol education program before being allowed to register for classes. Students also are put through workshops, training sessions and orientation programs that plainly detail the risks of alcohol abuse.
"It's in their face," UW Police Chief Troy Lane said.
Also, the city of Laramie enacted a new ordinance last year with stiffer penalties for drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or higher. A person is considered legally drunk at 0.08.
Liz Waesche, a Wyoming senior from Seattle who is studying to become a substance abuse counselor, said she believes the university's efforts are helping.
"I think that people are actually paying attention," said Waesche, who works with freshman in an alcohol awareness program.
Axelson said the efforts have shown results. Binge drinking has declined from about 48 percent of UW students surveyed in 2007 to about 36 percent in 2009, she said. Also, yearly surveys show more UW students are abstaining from alcohol altogether and using designated drivers.
And Wyoming has joined about 35 other colleges around the country to address high-risk drinking on campuses.
About 1,825 college students die every year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, and 696,000 students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of National Institutes of Health.
Still, the college alcohol culture is pervasive and can pose a contradiction on many campuses, including UW.
Before Wyoming's football team defeated Texas State on Sept. 10, players and fans joined the nation in observing the 10th anniversary of 9/11 terror attacks. But at War Memorial Stadium the moment of silence also honored the eight cross country athletes killed Sept. 16, 2001.
Then during the game the Cowboys band played "In Heaven There Is No Beer" - an ode to drinking that includes the line, "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here."
Students heartily sung along.
"I've tried to sort through that over the years," Axelson said. "And I don't know if students really focus on it - that it's about beer or it's just a lively song that resonates."
She said the song may be reviewed to see if it is appropriate.
Lane, the police chief, said he doubts the college alcohol culture is going to change, "But if we can do anything to make them more aware of it or if they think twice about getting in a car and driving after they've had a few drinks, then I guess that's effective."
It's a message Clint Haskins had not received. Friday will mark 10 years since Haskins decided to drive to see his girlfriend after a night of drinking at a party and a bar. At around the same time, eight members of the UW cross country team piled in a sport-utility vehicle and headed back to campus after spending much of the day across the state line in Colorado.
The crash occurred around 1:30 a.m. about 15 miles south of Laramie, killing Morgan McLeland, Nicholas Schabron, Justin Lambert-Belanger, Cody Brown, Kyle Johnson, Joshua Jones, Kevin Salverson, and Shane Shatto.
Haskins was the only survivor.
He has been incarcerated since pleading guilty to eight counts aggravated vehicular homicide and is scheduled to be released by Feb. 1, 2012.
"So it'll be just a little less than 10 years from when he went in," Kerry Shatto said. "You can take eight lives in Wyoming and it's not a very stiff penalty. Doesn't send that much of a message at all."
UW doesn't have any plans for a formal ceremony on Friday, the anniversary of the eight killed. Axelson said UW wanted to recognize the anniversary during the football game when thousands of people could attend.
Kerry Shatto said he planned to mark the anniversary at his son's grave site by releasing eight balloons with an attached note reading, "We miss you."
It's a ceremony he holds every year.
"Every day is an anniversary that I don't have Shane," he said.
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