January 18, 2010

Oakland crash that killed 3 teens still haunts 45 years later

It is a busy stretch of Maple Road. Two lanes of cars hurtle up and down the hill by the Quarton Lake waterfall in Birmingham, so the traffic light at Lake Park, a sleepy cross street, is an annoyance. The light was put there for a reason. Three teenagers and a young adult died here on a frigid Saturday night 45 years ago, four souls cut loose from the Earth in the blink of an eye.

The Jan. 16, 1965, crash ended the life of Roger "Roddy" Henderson, at 16 one of the top swimmers in the state, along with his friends Barbara "Peachie" Barnum, 16, and Sandy Christman, 17.

Also killed was the driver who caused the accident, Mike Drothler, 22, an assistant manager at a local grocery store. Drothler had two cases of beer in his Ford Galaxie when he rocketed down Maple at more than 70 miles per hour, smashing almost head-on into Roddy's Buick Skylark.

The accident left two boys, Mike Adair and Bruce Berridge, both 16, injured and facing multiple surgeries, and devastated family members. But the tragedy also haunts friends and Birmingham Seaholm High School classmates.

"It's a wound that never heals," said Paul "Butch" Fleming, a friend of Roddy's who lives in Indiana. "If there had been grievance counselors, if there had been therapy, that would have helped. But there was nothing."

Jack Torry, a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, wrote a book, "Henderson's Light" (Countinghouse Press), about the tragic crash and the effect on friends and family members. "Henderson's Light" is what friends call the traffic light at Lake Park.

Torry never knew the victims or survivors, but as a 13-year-old living in Birmingham, he was haunted by the ruined cars that sat at a local gas station: Roddy's maroon Buick Skylark, buckled in at the front and driver's side, and Drothler's black Ford Galaxie, pancaked into a hulk.

"The memory of those two cars got me into this," said Torry. "The black Galaxie looked like a V, the frame was completely broken. Whenever I saw a crash involving young kids, this would be what I'd think of."

Torry looked for and found the two survivors, Mike and Bruce. He also found parents who suffered early deaths, and family members who struggled with alcohol and emotional issues.

"I fully expected to fail. I thought nobody would want to talk about this," Torry said. "Was I surprised. It's as if they had been waiting for someone to ask."

Everything to live for

Roddy Henderson was just 16, but the lanky junior was the top swimmer on coach Corey Van Fleet's Seaholm Maples. A team with swagger, the Maples would pour a cup of Seaholm water into the opposing team's pool, just because.

A gifted freestyler, Roddy was equally skilled at the butterfly and backstroke, destined for the Olympics.

"He was an effortless athlete," said Bruce, a close friend of Roddy's. Van Fleet's grueling practices didn't faze a bored Roddy, who counted the squares on the bottom of the pool as he cut through the water.

"He was this hot guy who always smiled, good personality," recalled classmate Sue Melcher Pomroy.

Roddy was dating Peachie Barnum, the daughter of an IBM executive and one of four girls who "brought sunshine into the room," according to Mike Adair.

Mike was a standout on the team at backstroke, one of six children of a Birmingham obstetrician. Dubbed "Mouse" for his short stature, Mike had a warm, wry sense of humor. Bruce was quieter, a sensitive yet adventurous boy. Athletic Sandy Christman was a close friend of Peachie's.

That fateful Saturday, Roddy was shaking off the flu, so the Seaholm swimmers suffered a rare loss to Battle Creek Central.

Undaunted, Roddy drove his friends to the Casa Mia pizzeria on Woodward, where Mike and Bruce threw pizza crusts at each other.

"Five teenagers, a restaurateur's nightmare," Mike said.

On the way home, the five were listening to the radio and chattering away. Roddy drove north on Woodward and then headed west on Maple, going uphill in the left lane.

About 10:30 p.m. Drothler careened across into the westbound lanes and the front left of Roddy's car. He had been drinking. In the best judgment of the police and doctors, nobody knew what hit them. Mike and Bruce remember nothing -- consciously. While unconscious, Bruce screamed for weeks, and night terrors would visit them both.

Roddy died on the way to Beaumont Hospital; Peachie and Sandy perished almost instantly. Mike, sitting in the front with Roddy and Peachie, was thrown into the dashboard. Bruce was tossed out of the car.

Shockingly, Torry discovered that Drothler had crashed his car in the same place on Maple Road four years earlier, in 1961. He was driving a '55 Chevy when he lost control on the same curve past Lake Park, ramming a utility pole and running it into a second pole. He'd been drinking. The Chevy was torn in half but he and a friend were treated only for concussions and bruises at Beaumont. Torry could find no charges against him, no suspension of his license.

"That's what they did back then," Fleming said. "They'd take away your beer, tell you not to do it again and send you on your way."

In the early '60s, there were no groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Drinking and driving was frowned upon, but too often shrugged off. On the flagstone patios overlooking Quarton Lake, everyone had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Mike remembers a doctor with a cupholder attached to his car dashboard to hold his martini.

The Monday after the crash, Seaholm Assistant Principal J. Howard Clayton announced the deaths over the intercom. Students were told that only a select few could go to the funerals.

"They canceled an assembly," classmate Pomroy remembered. "That was it."

It was the philosophy of the time not to dwell on painful things. Forget it, heal and move on.

Suffering and guilt

The aftermath of the crash and the effect on the families takes up at least a third of Torry's book. "Nobody knew how to handle it," Torry said. "Bruce said, 'The hell with it, I'm not thinking about it anymore.' "

Bruce studied to be a veterinarian at Michigan State University, and bolted from the state soon after. His back is a constant reminder of Jan. 16, 1965.

"There was no physical therapy," he said. "If I'd had that, maybe I wouldn't have such problems with my back."

Mike struggled with his classes at Albion. "He couldn't figure out why he couldn't focus," Torry said.

Months after leaving the hospital, Mike was still picking pieces of windshield glass out of his face. He endured five surgeries, and until they put a screen over the hole in his forehead, his pulse was visible. The parents suffered more. To Mike's regret, his doctor father saw him right after the accident, battered beyond recognition. His dad died at 60.

Peachie's dad, Jack Barnum, the quintessential hard-driving executive, drank heavily and battled stomach problems.

"That accident was the end of their lives," recalled Peachie's older sister, Patty Barnum Moorhead. "My dad was promoted to Germany, but he couldn't go. Mom gave up. All Dad could do was cry, and be sad."

It was when he became a father that it really struck Mike.

"Thinking about Jack Barnum, looking at Dad, I understood," he said. "If anybody did that to my kids, I'd want to kill them. Dr. Christman (victim Sandy Christman's father) and Jack Barnum were just so angry. They were mad as hell and they couldn't lash out."

There was no obvious target to lash out against. The 22-year-old who caused the deaths was dead. His parents visited the homes of each of the victims to apologize.

Roddy's dad, Ed Henderson, appeared stoic.

"My dad didn't show much emotion, but I think he paid for it later," said Roddy's sister Nancy. "He had stomach problems his whole life."

Today, Mike, 61, and Bruce, 62, are doing well. Married and a father, Bruce is a veterinarian in Massachusetts. Married and a grandfather, Mike analyzes blood at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Until he points out a faint scar that cuts across his face, you wouldn't know he had endured a violent car crash.

Both men feel lucky, but there was survivor's guilt. "Especially the first year," said Bruce. "That's why it was so hard."

Mike avoided his dead friends' families, fearing he was a bad memory. Today he is close to Bruce, as well as the Hendersons. "I need to talk to the Barnums," Mike said recently. "I need to call them, but it's going to be an emotional call."

Bruce still finds it painful to talk about the crash. "It's opening a scab up," he said.

Over the years, Roddy's sister Nancy struggled with depression and went through rehab. Reading Torry's book was hard at first, but "it's good to have the story told," she says now.

Questions linger

Until Torry started digging, many friends and relatives didn't know what the others had gone through. The Hendersons were surprised so many of Roddy's classmates still thought about him.

At her brother's 40th class reunion, Nancy Henderson discovered that many still visited his grave. It's almost visible through the winter trees from Maple Road, a serene setting for the end of a long life, but too quiet for a 16-year-old.

The question "why?" still lingers. The best grief counseling can't explain why a teenager goes out for a pizza, drives the speed limit and never comes home.

For author Torry, there's an anti-drunken-driving message: The teens died because of an impaired driver who wasn't dealt with after an earlier incident.

Peachie's sister Patty finds solace in her religious beliefs. "I feel we will be reunited," said Patty.

Fleming, one of the friends who visits Roddy's grave, has a harder time making sense of it.

"I have no idea why this happened," Fleming said. "There is no reason."

In the cold, hard view of science: One minute you're alive, the next minute you're gone.

A light on Maple Road is a constant reminder.

swhitall@detnews.com">swhitall@detnews.com (313) 222-2156