Zach Myers’ soft, beckoning smile jumped out at readers from Page 8 of Saturday’s Kansas City Star.
The vitality of that smile — the glimmer in those happy eyes — stood in stark, awful contrast, however, to the news that accompanied the photo: Myers, a 16-year-old junior at Olathe Northwest High School, had died from injuries he suffered in a car crash last Wednesday.
The story, which did not bear a by-line, said Zach had been in a vehicle with two other boys; that a head-on collision had occurred on Iowa Street in Olathe about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1; that neither of the other boys nor the woman driving the other vehicle suffered serious injuries
The story said that Zach, in addition to being a student at Northwest High, attended the Millcreek Center, a career and technical school in Olathe. The story quoted a statement from the district that described Zach as a well-liked student “with a caring heart whose wit and charm touched many lives.”
As far as it went, the story was satisfactory. But it left so many questions unanswered.
Not just unanswered, but, worse, apparently unasked.
As a former reporter, as a parent, as a curious human being, I wanted to know more.
For example, were the boys in school that day? And, if so, why were they out driving on the street at 10:30 a.m.? Where, exactly, did the crash occur? Was speed a factor? Were drugs or alcohol involved? Did one of the vehicles cross over into the path of the other? Were the occupants of both vehicles wearing seatbelts?
The Star’s story addressed none of those questions.
It’s not every day that the life of a beaming, 16-year-old student is snuffed out in the Kansas City area, and when it does happen, in my view, it deserves more than a cursory story from the area’s leading news-gathering force.
Readers should expect a lot more than what they got on Page 8 of Saturday’s paper.
So, I set out to expand the record and set it as straight as I could. Here’s what I did and what I found.
:: I checked the school calendar, which indicated school was in session that day.
:: I called the school district public relations office to verify that school was in session and to try to find out why the boys might have been out on the streets. I was told that the district spokesperson was not in but that someone else would call me. That was about 9 a.m. I haven’t heard back.
:: I went to Mapquest and discovered that Iowa Street is a north-south street that runs from Santa Fe, near downtown Olathe, to just south of 119th Street, west of Woodland.
:: I called the police department and spoke with Sgt. Johnny Roland, police spokesman.
Roland said he believed the boys were on their way from Millcreek Center, near downtown Olathe, to Northwest, which is about five miles from Millcreek, at College Boulevard and South Lone Elm. He said Iowa, a logical route for the trip north, was a two-lane street, where cars parked on either side.
Roland said the crash was under investigation and that he had not seen a report. Knowing the street, he said he could understand how a head-on crash could happen there, but he said he didn’t know if either vehicle crossed over.
He also said he did not know what kind of car the boys were in; if Zach or the other boys — or the woman driving the other vehicle — were wearing seatbelts; and if excessive speed was a factor. When I asked him if drugs or alcohol were involved, he said, “I don’t believe so.”
:: I called the Myers’ home in Lenexa. At first, I spoke with Zach’s mother, Kimberly Myers. I explained to her who I was and what I was doing, extended my sympathy and asked her if she was willing to talk about the crash. Before turning the phone over to her husband, John, she told me that Zach had been in the back seat of the vehicle and that he had been wearing a seatbelt.
When John Myers, a 21-year- veteran of the Olathe Fire Department, got on the line, I again offered my sympathy and explained who I was and why I was calling. We talked — amicably, I thought — for about five minutes.
He said all three boys were wearing seatbelts and that the other two suffered only scrapes and bruises. Like Sgt. Roland, that he didn’t know what kind of vehicle the boys were in. The other boys were classmates, he said, but he didn’t believe Zach was particularly close friends with them. Myers said he had not spoken with family members of the other boys.
He said Zach customarily spent part of school-day mornings at Millcreek and then went to Northwest about 10:40 a.m. or 11. So, the timing of the crash, as well as the route they were taking, he said, would indicate they were on their way to Northwest. He said the crash occurred about a mile north of Millcreek.
Myers said that Zach, whose survivors include an older brother, suffered a head injury, but Myers said he didn’t know how he struck his head or on what. I noted that it sounded rather flukish — that everyone else walked away from the wreck, while Zach, buckled in the back seat, suffered mortal injuries.
Myers agreed, saying: “We’re curious as well. We’re at a loss as to how this could happen.”
He said that the family was eager to get answers to their questions, but, at the same time, he did not want the investigation to be rushed.
“Frankly, I want them to take their time,” Myers said. “I want them to investigate this thoroughly.”
So, the Myers family and other people who would like to know more about this tragedy must wait. I certainly hope The Star will follow up. The loss of what appears to be a fine, 16-year-old boy should not be allowed to drift out of public awareness without explanation.
A post script is in order.
As I said in the text, I thought my conversation with John Myers was amicable. He spoke with understandable sadness in his voice but never gave an indication he wanted to cut off the conversation. Before we signed off, I again expressed my sympathy and sorrow on his behalf.
About an hour afterwards, however, I got a call from Officer Michael Bussell of the Lenexa Police Department who told me to stop harassing the Myers family. I told him that John Myers had spoken freely and had given me no indication that he wanted to end the conversation.
Bussell took my “information” — name, address, d.o.b., telephone numbers, blog address — and said that if I attempted to contact the Myers family again, I could be charged with harassment.
…Such is the lot of a blogger who dusted off his reporter’s hat and tried to satisfy his curiosity — and perhaps the curiosity of members of the public –about a case that got short shrift from “the paper of record.”