By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
TIFFIN– It’s a nightmare scenario: one student dead, seven injured. For the Clear Creek Amana (CCA) school district and its communities, this was a nightmare nobody could wake up from.
CCA freshman Mackenzie Lown, 14, was killed Monday night, Oct. 17, in a two-vehicle collision on US Highway 6 near Half Moon Road near Tiffin. A 1996 Chevrolet Lumina driven by Zach Swenka, 18, of North Liberty, was eastbound on Highway 6 when it collided with a 2010 Honda Odyssey minivan being driven by Bryan Cooling, 47, of Oxford.
Swenka was driving five other members of the CCA cross country team back to the high school in Tiffin following a practice run at Kent Park. According to the Iowa State Patrol, Swenka traveled through the curve just west of mile marker 242 (approximately 2 1/2 miles west of Tiffin) when his tires dropped onto the gravel shoulder. Swenka steered to the left and crossed the centerline. He then steered back to the right to avoid a head-on collision with Cooling’s van. While the head-on was avoided, the van struck the car in the left rear corner causing massive damage to the passenger compartment. Both vehicles ended up in the north ditch.
Lown was wearing her seat belt in the left rear seat but was ejected due to the impact and pronounced dead at the scene by the Johnson County Medical Examiner’s office.
Swenka received non-incapacitating injuries and was transported to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) by the Johnson County Ambulance Service (JCAS).
Also in the car were Daniel Brechtel, 15, of North Liberty; Dustin Cox, 16, of Oxford; Chloe Keith, 14, of Tiffin; and Claire Riggan, 14, of Oxford. Brechtel and Cox were taken to UIHC with non-incapacitating injuries while Keith was listed as having suffered incapacitating injuries. Riggan was in the rear center seat and sustained injuries serious enough to warrant being airlifted to UIHC by Air Care helicopter.
Bryan Cooling and passenger Toni Cooling, 42, both sustained non-incapacitating injuries and were taken by ambulance to UIHC.
The report noted all victims were using seat belts at the time of the crash.
Lown’s death has left the CCA district reeling.
“She was a wonderful young lady,” CCA Middle School principal Brad Fox said of the girl who came as a seventh grader from the Center Point-Urbana district. “She fit in immediately, an absolute sweetheart. She was one of those kids you would want babysitting your kids. You’d want your daughter to grow up to be like her.”
High school principal Mark Moody said Lown was involved in dance, the cross country team, and had recently been elected to the student council.
“This has had a big impact on us, especially with the ninth grade, but she was a friend to everybody,” he said, describing Lown as a “positive, bright kid” who crossed grades easily. He went on to describe a somber mood in the school where students met for prayers and reflection. Students also decorated her locker in tribute while the cross country team underwent counseling. Moody said the team spent as much of Tuesday (Oct. 18) together as possible. Team members practiced as scheduled, made T-shirts in Lown’s honor and attended the regional competition in Anamosa on Wednesday, Oct. 19, as originally scheduled.
“It’s a great loss for all of us,” said CCA Superintendent Dr. Denise Schares. Schares said counselors and staff met with students immediately after the accident and in the days following. She praised the help of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (AEA), which provided a crisis team to meet with students dealing with their grief. Moody also praised the AEA’s response and said their assistance will continue to be available as needed.
“I anticipate she would really go on to be a great athlete, she probably always would have excelled in everything she did,” Fox said, choking back tears.
In 2009, CCA lost two high school students in two separate accidents. Lisa Adams, 17, was killed in a rollover in March of that year while Alyssa Benedict, 16, was killed in a September rollover accident. Then-principal Tom McDonald said after Benedict’s accident “we’ve had more than our share of tragedies.”
While Moody and Schares praised the district’s crisis plan and staff for the way this most recent crisis was handled, Moody recalled the words of facilitator Mike Potter:
“There’s no playbook for this.”