Hundreds walk in honor of teens involved in park crash

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Shelby Township

— The sky was unrelentingly gray all morning. Rain came down in sheets at times, in a drizzle at others. And the humidity was a constant — the unwanted guest that wouldn't leave.

It was the definition of a stay-at-home Sunday morning in Shelby Township. And yet, for more than two hours, residents from the area covered by Utica Community Schools kept pouring in to Stony Creek Metropark.

Given the chance to try and find a positive in one of the worst tragedies many in the area could remember, they didn't pass.

More than 200 gathered at the park Sunday for a fundraiser honoring the memory of five local teens involved in a May 8 crash nearby. Three of those teens, 17-year-olds Michael Wells, Jonathon Manolios and Emmanuel Malaj, all of Sterling Heights, died in the one-car crash. Joseph Narra and Gregory Bobchick, also 17 and both of Shelby Township, survived but sustained serious injuries.

Sunday, as people continued to file in through the rain to sign up for a 5k walk/run, or buy t-shirts raffle and game tickets, Narra's father, looked on in appreciation.

"It means a lot... just a lot to us," said Hisham Narra.

The five teens were in a 2008 Jaguar S-type that was traveling above the park speed limit when the driver lost control and the vehicle hit a guardrail and crashed through a fence. The car came landed in Stony Creek River. Four of the teens were ejected from the vehicle, while the only passenger wearing a seat belt remained in the car and survived.

Within days of the accident, Macomb County Sheriff reported that alcohol had been discovered in the car, but declined to release specifics. A final investigation report is still being completed.

Friends and family of the victims are determined to make the incident — and the circumstances involved — a teachable moment.

"We chose two charities, 50 percent of proceeds are going to Driver's Edge," said Lauren Haboosh, a cousin of survivor Joseph Narra, and an event organizer. "It's a program that prepares teens and students to get behind the wheel... And also, 50 percent of proceeds are going to DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)."

Many questions remain unanswered for the community, and that means plenty of people are waiting to see the conclusions drawn by investigators. Sterling Heights resident Melanie Marko and Kim Plets of Macomb both have children who go to school with a brother of one of the victims. They brought their kids along Sunday to ensure they come away with the right message — about seat belts, about designated drivers and about being responsible.

"This is a life lesson," Plets said. "These weren't bad kids. They just may have made bad decisions."

For those who made the effort to be a part of Sunday's activities, there was a special treat. Near the end of the program, Joseph Narra made an appearance. Family members drove him to the park and he emerged slowly from the front seat.

His head and neck were immobilized via a brace, and his cast-covered left led stuck out ahead of his wheelchair. But his presence at the park Sunday, generated the widest smiles. Narra laughed and spoke with several people, many who lined up for a chance to see him. And on top of that, it was his 18th birthday.

When his father jokingly asked if he was ready to do a birthday dance, Narra responded with a smile and: "I wish."

He met briefly with Jeff Shea, the Shelby Township firefighter who was off-duty at the park the day of the accident and helped save Narra's life.

"It's kind of breathtaking and very emotional," Shea said. "To see him, where he was at that day to where he is at now — he's sitting there talking to me and everything. It was a lot. It hit me. It hit home."

Nearby, Shelby Township Fire Chief James Swinkowski, nodded along. He had been asked to attend Sunday's program by the organizers to help hammer home the importance of safe vehicle operation and the use of seat belts.

"Seat belts made the difference in this situation," he said. "The one person who was wearing a seat belt stayed in the vehicle and was only in the hospital a couple of days. The other four occupants,(who) where not wearing seat belts - three died and the fourth has very extensive injuries from being ejected from the vehicle.

"Seat belts are the one factor everyone can (control).... It does make the difference in accidents."

JLynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034