County mourns three killed in Rt. 311 accident

CRAIG COUNTY – Craig County is in mourning this week. People are rocked by the deaths of three young women and serious injuries of two of their friends who were in intensive care after Sunday’s late night car crash on Rt. 311.

In a county as small as Craig – population 5,000, with a graduating class of around 55 students each year –  just about everyone is family.

People of all ages are leaving flowers and tributes to the three girls who died at this roadside memorial along Rt. 311 in Craig County.
People of all ages are leaving flowers and tributes to the three girls who died at this roadside memorial along Rt. 311 in Craig County.

The accident happened on “The Flats” near the New Castle-Craig County Volunteer Rescue Squad Hall, and deputies, volunteers and part-time paid rescuers were on the scene in minutes.

Not since Dec. 30, 2005, had county residents been hit so hard by an automobile accident which killed Craig young people. That time, it was Joshua Jones and Chris Dewease who died in a crash on Rt. 42.

A remembrance service and time of prayer was held Monday night at New Castle Christian Church. It was attended by Craig County High School students and others throughout the county who needed to express their grief over the loss of Megan Bradley, 18; Carleigh Taylor, 22, and Tia Gardner, 19, who all graduated from the high school. Those gathered also prayed for the families, and for hospitalized Alyssa Swingle, 16, a CCHS senior, and 2012 graduate Jessica Stebar, who had surgery Tuesday morning.

Swingle and Stebar’s families were with them at Roanoke Memorial Hospital where those two and Gardner were airlifted within minutes after the 11:30 p.m. accident Oct. 6. Gardner later died at the hospital, police said.

Virginia State Police Officer Scott Charles’ investigation showed Bradley, who was driving an Isuzu Rodeo, tried to pass a Chevrolet Beretta that was turning left. Both cars were headed south, toward New Castle. Craig Emergency Services Director Jim Cady said he understood the Rodeo clipped the other car, lost control and struck a tree.

State Police said Bradley, who was not wearing a seat belt, and Taylor, who had on her seat belt, were dead at the scene. According to Virginia State Police, the other driver, 19-year-old Nicholas Fisher, and his two passengers were not hurt in the accident.

Extra counselors were on hand at the high school starting Monday to help students and staff work through their grief. A Critical Stress Debriefing meeting was held at the high school Monday night for members of the fire department, rescue squads and deputies.

No announcements about funerals for the three friends had been made by press time Tuesday mid-day.

“Prayer and time is the only thing that gets you through these times,” said Craig County Superintendent of Schools Kelly Wilmore. “We are a community school and always in support of the community. We will be providing anything we can here. We’re making calls to the churches, arranging food for the families, making sure we’re all supporting each other,” said Wilmore, who is in his first year as superintendent.

Friends recalled poignant times with the three who died, especially Tia Gardner. She and Andy McCarty had sung “My Wish” at their 2012 graduation ceremony on the Craig County football field.

Family friend Karen Wiseman noted about Gardner, “She loved to sing at church, had a sweet voice and always a sweet smile on her face. Her momma, Lori, devoted her life to her and made sure she was a respectful, loving, caring young lady.”

“I will miss Tia very much. She was just as sweet as she was beautiful,” said Sue Sublett Bostic, who is related by marriage to Gardner’s mother.

“Carleigh was full of life and every time I ever saw her, she had the biggest smile on her face. She was loved by many people, and will be missed terribly,” wrote Theresa Wells Richardson on The New Castle Record’s Facebook page.

Megan Bradley was a student at Virginia Western Community College and Gardner and Taylor had been. Stebar is also a student at VWCC.

According to their Facebook pages, Megan Bradley was a server at Mac and Bob’s restaurant in Salem; Taylor was a residential counselor at Innovative Community Soilutions and Gardner was a teller at Farmers and Merchants Bank.


Rescuers arrived within minutes

By Meg Hibbert

Although it turned out there was nothing that could be done for two of the young women in Sunday night’s fatal accident, rescuers arrived within minutes and began working to save the lives of three others.

The Oct. 6 late-night accident happened near the Craig County Rescue Squad building on Rt. 311. It was also close to Craig County Emergency Services building, the county’s new part-time paid responders. Thirty seconds after the paid responders got there, volunteers arrived, said Brent Crush, chief of the Craig County-New Castle Volunteer Fire Department. He was officer in charge at the accident.

By the time the first truck on the scene, No. 91, the staffed paid truck, arrived with two medics, Craig County Deputies had already called for three Lifeguard helicopters to ultimately airlift Tia Gardner, Alyssa Swingle and Jessica Stebar to Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Swingle and Stebar were in intensive care at press time. Gardner died after arriving at the hospital early Monday morning.

Volunteers from the county’s fire and rescue squads were only minutes behind the paid staff that night. The three injured young women were rushed to the landing pad at the Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, near Craig County High School.

First responders worked together rapidly just as they had been trained to do, and had done so many times before at other accidents, said Crush, and Shawn Matheney, chief of the Volunteer Rescue Squad, Station No. 8.

“We all work well together whenever anything happens bad,” said Crush. “We had seven from the fire department, and 10 or 12 people from rescue.”

“Everyone did well. The accident was a shame. I’ve done the same crazy stuff, passing somebody. When you’re young, you don’t got no fear.”

Virginia State Police said driver Megan Bradley, 18, apparently tried to pass a car that was turning left, clipped the vehicle, lost control and hit a tree.

Both Crush and Matheney remembered working the accident seven years ago when two young Craig County men died on Rt. 42. “We did what we’re trained to do,” said Matheney. “Everybody worked hand-in-hand together.”

Still, the accident that claimed three young lives left first responders shaken. Monday night, they had a chance to talk it out if they wanted to, when a Critical Stress Debriefing Team from the Western Virginia Emergency Medical Services Council came to a session for first responders, at Craig County High School. The team plans to return in a week for a second visit.

“We have some very stressed fire and rescue people,” said the county’s Emergency Services Director Jim Cady. “We leave it up to them. If we see somebody that has the signs and symptoms of stress after an emergency, we try to encourage that person to come to a stress debriefing meeting. I think we’re going to have a good turn out. I think even the ones who don’t think  they need it are going to go,  to support their other brothers and sisters.”

Having the paid staff on duty and available when volunteers can’t cover shifts has cut response time to accidents and medical emergencies – and then on to the hospitals – from up to an hour to minutes, Cady said.

“We have somebody assigned to every shift. Volunteers turn out in eight minutes now. Before, Roanoke County was running about 18 percent of our calls because we didn’t have enough volunteers available, and some response times were close to an hour.”

Editor’s note: Megan Bradley’s was the first funeral scheduled, on Thursday, Oct. 10, with burial in Paint Bank. The families are scheduling all three funerals separately.