Leonard James Austgen
Gerald "Gerry" Griesmer
Gweneth "Gwen" Stack
The Lowell community, stunned over last Friday night's auto tragedy that claimed the lives of five of its young resident high school students and a former Lowell High School graduate, buried the six youths Monday and Tuesday, September 23 and 24, in services held at funeral homes and churches here and at Cedar Lake.
Residents, shocked over the accident, joined in silent sympathy with the families of the victims, realizing the helplessness that lies in attempting to convey adequate condolences at such a time. Each in mourning will carry his own personal memories of the six students, all of whom were killed in a two car collision near the Orchard Grove Service Station on State Highway 2 off of Route 55 (Nine Mile Stretch), while enroute home from a hayride and wiener roast party held at the Vernon Childress home following the Lowell Chesterton football game at Lowell. Two of the youths, Leonard James Austgen, 17, and Robert Felder, 17, had participated in the game on the Lowell High School team.
The collision, that occurred at about midnight, first left innumerable suppositions and questions as to the actual route traveled by the carload of youths at the time of the accident. It has now been established by the Lake County Sheriff's office that both cars were traveling on Route 2. One of the autos, driven by Todd Belshaw, age 17, accompanied by 4 companions, was traveling west on Highway 2 and apparently crossed over into the path of an auto driven by Carol Jean Wilson, age 18, of Hebron, according to police reports. The Wilson girl, driver and only occupant in the other auto, was traveling eastbound enroute to her home and the autos crashed almost head on.
In the car with Belshaw at the time were Gerald Griesmer, age 15, son of Lowell Police Chief and Mrs. Robert Griesmer, Sr.; Leonard James Austgen, 17,son of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Joseph Austgen; Gweneth Stack, 14, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Stack of Cedar Lake; and Robert Felder, 17, son of Mr. and Mrs. Forrest Felder. Carol Jean Wilson was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Wilson.
Sheriff's police and ambulances arriving at the scene shortly after the collision described it as the worst in the history of the county. Other carloads of youths enroute home from the same party arrived at the scene minutes afterward and stared in disbelief as the bodies of their friends were carried to waiting ambulances. Deputy Coroner, Dr. Daniel Gray, of Crown Point, pronounced two of the youths, Griesmer and Felder, dead at the scene of the crash. The other four, rushed by ambulances to Methodist Hospital at Gary, died on arrival.
The parents of the students were notified immediately of the tragedy. Police Chief Griesmer, notified that an accident had occurred near the Orchard Grove Station, was unaware that his son was among the fatalities. Stopping at a roadblock set up on the highway by Sheriff's police, he was informed of the names of the youths and then returned home to his family.
Groups of television, radio, and area newspaper personnel converged on the town early Saturday morning for the difficult task of reporting the details and reactions following the aftermath, as burial arrangements were underway. Statewide headlines brought hundreds of out of town residents here to view the scene of the tragedy, many of them stopping in cars to ask directions and to express regrets.
Each of the youths had been described by friends and teachers as quiet and studious. All had good scholastic records and had expressed intentions of going on to college for future careers. Young Griesmer, a freshman student at Lowell, had already received a scholarship and had been photographed and interviewed for a feature story last year by the Tribune. He had decided on a career in archaeology.
Gwen Stack, of Cedar Lake, was a sophomore student at Lowell, Leonard James Austgen was a junior and Belshaw and Felder were both Lowell High School seniors. All were active in sports and were members of numerous school organizations.
According to reports, over thirty youths attended the hayride at the Childress home, all leaving there in carloads, with groups of those who lived nearest each other riding together. "It could have been any car," said one of the parents. "It has all been terribly upsetting to everyone, especially since knowing that any of our own could have scrambled into that particular car for a ride home."
Classes at Lowell High School were dismissed on Monday and Tuesday by Principal Thomas Stuart, to enable schoolmates and teachers of the victims to attend funeral services. The multiple rites saw thousands in attendance.
On Monday funeral services were held at Sheets Funeral Home for the Griesmer youth at 10:00 a.m. with the Reverend John Hippard officiating. Burial was at Owensville, Indiana. Surviving him, along with his parents, are one brother, Robert; three sisters, Beverly, Cathy and Floy; grandparents, Wilce Griesmer of Lowell and Everett E. Chapman of Hammond.
Miss Wilson is survived by her parents; five brothers, Ronald, Steven, Charles, Scott and Thomas, of Hebron; and grandparents, Robert E. Wilson and Mrs. George Hartz, of LaPorte. Funeral services were held Monday at 2:00 p.m. at the Range Line Presbyterian Church with the Reverend Frank M. Elliott officiating. Burial was in the Plum Grove Cemetery.
Services for Robert Felder and Leonard James Austgen were held at St. Edward's Church on Tuesday morning at 9:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. with the Reverend Chester Zurawiec officiating. Burial was in St. Edward's Cemetery. Surviving with Austgen's parents are his brother, Robert, and grandparents Mr. and Mrs. R.H. Cullen, Sr. Survivors of Robert Felder include his parents; one brother, Tom; a sister, Threasa; maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. George Schutz; and paternal grandparent, Mrs. Arthur Felder.
Todd Belshaw leaves to mourn along with his parents, one brother, James; paternal grandparent, Albert Belshaw; and maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Cordie Ragon. Service were held at the Eskridge Funeral Home Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. Reverend Wm. Stephenson officiated. Burial was in the Lowell Cemetery.
Gwen Stack is survived by her parents; one sister, Sharon; and one brother, Alan. Services were held for her on Monday at 2:00 p.m. at the Eller Funeral Home followed by services at the Cedar Lake Methodist Church, with the Reverend McFarland officiating. Burial was in Chapel Lawn Memorial Gardens.
In mourning, families and friends will long remember the tragedy that was laid at the doorsteps of the six area families. It will be a community in requiem for many months to come.
The Lowell Tribune, upon contacting the Lake County Sheriff's Department early Wednesday, was informed that following questioning the eight youths riding in a third vehicle near the scene of the crash have been exonerated of any involvement in the accident.
Late developments Monday introduced a third car near the two car collision fatal to six Lowell area youths last Friday night on State Highway 2, east of Lowell, with the questionable route taken by the youths riding in the Belshaw auto definitely established as having been westbound on Highway 2.
According to statements by Chief Deputy Millard Matthews of the Lake County Sheriff's office, the accident victims had not been traveling on Route 55 prior to the accident, as was previously assumed.
The eight occupants, of the third auto, the statements say, were all students of Lowell High School, and had attended the same hayride party as the victims. The youth told police of having left the hayride, dropping off two of the occupants at their homes, one on Highway 2 and the other on Route 55, north of 2. Returning to the junction, they stopped at the stop sign and saw headlights of an approaching westbound auto on Highway 2. They turned onto Highway 2, believing the approaching westbound auto to have been a safe distance away. After making the turn the driver of the station waggon in which the youths were riding proceeded toward Lowell, when a loud sound caused the driver to pull into the driveway of a nearby farm. When two of the youths stepped out of the station wagon they saw "what looked like flames" and realized there had been an accident. They returned to the junction and immediately summoned help, then remained at the scene until police and ambulances arrived.
Inaccurate accounts of the accident, concerning the route of the Belshaw car, were issued earlier from officials at the scene. It has been reported that the youths in the third car made known their presence in the vicinity at the time of the accident.
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