CANADA

Youth and booze: no easy answer

A tragic accident raises public concern about 'bush parties’

TOM FENNELL May 24 1993
CANADA

Youth and booze: no easy answer

A tragic accident raises public concern about 'bush parties’

TOM FENNELL May 24 1993

Youth and booze: no easy answer

A tragic accident raises public concern about 'bush parties’

On his way out the door of his family’s home in Belfountain, a village northwest of Toronto, Damien deRonde gave his mother Paula a hug and assured her that he would be around the next morning to help celebrate Mother’s Day. The 19-year-old high-school student then rushed off to a time-honored spring ritual—a “bush party.” That night, deRonde and hundreds of other young people from the area gathered in a field to drink, listen to music and let off steam on the first balmy Saturday night of the season. It seemed like a perfect way to kick off the summer. Early the next morning, tragedy struck. Minutes after deRonde and four of his friends left the party, their Plymouth Reliant station wagon broke over the crest of a hill and smashed head-on into another car, killing eight people and severely injuring two others. Later, as she sorted through photographs of her son, Paula deRonde had only one wish: “I would give anything to trade places with him. He had his whole life ahead of him.”

Inevitably, the tragedy led to anguished calls for a crackdown on bush parties, on drinking and driving and on advertisements that link alcohol with youth and fun. It may also accelerate the push to implement socalled graduated licensing programs across Canada, which would place stricter limits on young, inexperienced drivers. But perhaps the most important lesson of last week’s accident was that no amount of planning and precaution can guarantee the safety of young revellers. The host of the party, Damien Deroux, 19, had notified police of his plans and invited them to set up a roadside checkpoint at the entrance to a field on family property. And according to those who were at the party, the young man who was driving the Plymouth Reliant, William Benford, was sober when he climbed behind the wheel. Said Debra Mackenzie, a student who attended the party: “It was an isolated incident. This accident wasn’t caused by the party.” Even so, police across Canada say that they are increasingly concerned about the safety of bush parties. At a party in April in the Oakville area, west of Toronto, a teenage girl suffered severe burns when she was accidentally doused with gasoline that was being used to fuel a bonfire. And in Owen Sound, 150 km northwest of Toronto on Georgian Bay, police say that they have have been confronted by as many as 2,000 rowdy youths at bush parties in the area. OPP Staff Sgt. John Tiley said that at one recent party near the town, a young man was pushed into a pit filled with broken glass, slashing one of his wrists.

Fights used to be a common problem at field parties in the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge. But Lethbridge police Insp. Donald Lee said that his officers now use four-wheel-drive vehicles to patrol popular locations for bush parties. Meanwhile, property owners are trying to stamp out unauthorized parties on their land by phoning police as soon as they see bonfires. Said Lee: ‘We know what can happen at these parties if you are not on top of it.”

The irony is that if every bush party was as responsibly planned as the one near Belfountain on May 8, police would have much less to complain about. The host, Deroux, spent days organizing the bash on his parents’ field just east of the village. He also made it clear that guests who drank too much could stay on the property overnight. Said Deroux in the invitations he sent out: “Tents are welcome for those of you who would prefer to spend the night under the stars than behind bars.”

The first guests arrived before dark, and by 11 p.m. about 200 young people were gathered around a roaring bonfire. Craig Bela, 19, a friend of those who died in Benford’s car, said that the party was going

well because so many friends had returned from university for the summer. “I remember looking up and seeing all my friends there,” he recalled. “It was great.”

Among the guests were Ryan Parsons, 21, and his 16-year-old brother, Mark. Ryan Parsons was widely known in the area for his sense of humor. Bela said that he and Parsons planned to produce a number of novelty T-shirts, including one that would declare: “Booze saved my life.”

Just after midnight, Bela said, Benford asked him if he wanted a ride home. But someone else offered him another drink so he stayed. Benford soon left with deRonde, Ryan and Mark Parsons and Rachel Deane, 18, also of the Belfountain area. Known for her sense of humor and affability, she had just finished her first year at Carleton University in Ottawa.

As Benford’s car pulled on to the gravel side road, it was stopped by one of eight OPP cruisers blocking the road. OPP Const. Paul Kasulis said that the police checked the cars for bottles of alcohol and the drivers for signs of impairment. Benford cleared the checkpoint and turned onto the nearby Forks Of The Credit Road, a winding paved sideroad with a 50 krrvh speed limit and a number of dangerous curves and hills—one known locally as Blind Man’s Hill.

Police declined to speculate last week how fast Benford had been driving. But Sunil Madoo, a 22-year-old from nearby Brampton, Ont., who was travelling west with two friends that evening, said that Benford’s car suddenly raced up behind his Monte Carlo. As they reached the brow of Blind Man’s Hill, Madoo said that the Reliant pulled out and tried to pass. At the same instant, headlights from an oncoming Pontiac Grand Am appeared in the eastbound lane. The cars collided in a sickening flash of light and twisting metal. Benford’s car then sideswiped Madoo’s Monte Carlo, before crashing into a dirt embankment.

Benford’s car was on fire by the time Madoo and his two companions rushed over to help. They managed to pry open one of the doors but were unable to remove any of the unconscious victims. Flames quickly engulfed the car and its occupants. They did manage to get four people out of the Grand Am, but Michael Ufton, 20, William Pawlick, 17, and Melisa Doucette, 18, all of Brampton, died. Two other passengers, Ricky Trahan, 20, and Michael Pawlick, 15, were taken to hospital with critical injuries.

Whether or not a party mood or simple fate caused the accident on Blind Man’s Hill, police say that they still have grave concerns about field parties. Kasulis said that many of the teenagers who attend such parties are under the legal drinking age, but because they are consuming alcohol on private property the police are powerless to intervene.

One measure that might save lives is a new graduated licensing program that is scheduled to come into effect in Ontario

by the end of the year. On May 6, Ontario Transportation Minister Gilles Pouliot introduced legislation that would ban people who have been driving less than 18 months from operating a motor vehicle after consuming even one drink. All new drivers, not just teenagers, would also be prohibited from using major highways at any time or from driving after midnight for up to one year.

British Columbia and Nova Scotia are also studying graduated licensing programs. James Vance, Nova Scotia’s director of highway safety, said that during public hearings into the proposals in February and March, teenagers were generally in favor of the proposal. But others disagree. Steven West, the minister responsible for the Alberta Motor Vehicle Licensing Division, said that graduated licensing would be a nightmare to enforce. Said West: “I have yet to be convinced it is workable.”

The day after the Ontario tragedy, hundreds of grief-stricken friends and relatives of the victims drove up the hill to the accident site. Many brought flowers to lay against the roadside embankment under a tree that had been burned black by the inferno. Meanwhile, in a field where hundreds of young adults had happily partied, there were only a few signs to indicate that the event had even taken place. The grass, turned lush green by a sudden burst of warm weather, was still matted by tire tracks. Dozens of broken beer bottles lay heaped in the fire pit. ‘There won’t be any parties here for a while,” Bela said. Many police and parents hope he is right.

TOM FENNELL in Belfountain