32

53 Years Later, Enterprise High School Project Recalls Deadly Crash, Loss of 6 Teens’ Lives: Hope for Change

Turn back the hands of time 53 years. It’s just after noon on Sept. 28, 1968. A 1959 Chevy packed with six teenagers races up Highway 44. Susanville’s their destination. They’re heading for an away-football game between Enterprise High School and Lassen High School.

Eighteen-year-old Shasta College sophomore Warren Perry Martineau is behind the wheel. He’s the boyfriend of one of his five 17-year-old female passengers. He’s driving fast as he passes a Ford Bronco that contains four occupants, all of whom are also on their way to the game.

Unbeknownst to all six teens inside the Chevy, this is their final car ride. Their lives end in an instant on that two-lane stretch of the conifer-flanked highway.

A lifetime’s worth of grief, guilt and disbelief begins for those left behind.

Those were among the known details.

However, other details remain unknown, such as whether all the girls’ parents were aware that Martineau — rather than another parent — would drive their daughters to Susanville that day. It’s also uncertain whether any of the girls or their parents were aware of Martineau’s devastating traffic history: Three years earlier Martineau was convicted of misdemeanor manslaughter in Shasta County Juvenile Court after his car struck and fatally injured a 4-year-old Redding boy, Dana Mark Wilson.

According to California Highway Patrol reports, after passing the Bronco, Martineau was driving well in excess of 70 miles per hour as he attempted to maneuver his vehicle around a sharp corner three miles north of the 44/Highway 36 junction. There was some speculation that Martineau’s car may have even been traveling in the 80-mph range. Evidence suggested that Martineau’s car’s tires hit the shoulder, which caused Martineau to overcorrect, which propelled his car downhill, directly into the opposite lane, and into the path of an oncoming logging truck.

The truck driver was injured and hospitalized. His logging truck was demolished.

Martineau’s car was so unbelievably annihilated that one witnesses described it as unrecognizable as a car. It took more than seven hours for authorities to extract the vehicle and its occupants from beneath the truck so authorities could make identifications. Full and empty beer cans were found in the wreckage, although blood tests showed that Martineau was not over the legal alcohol limit.

A 1968 Record Searchlight story quoted a grisly statement made by one of the school’s teachers who’d gone to the crash site to help identify the victims.

“There were just bits and and pieces of kids,” he said.

A television news story was even more graphic. One portion of the film shows a news reporter who stands at the top of Placer Street with a vista-view of Redding as he speaks somberly into his microphone. In an almost chilling coincidence, that broadcast location was just up the street from where, in 1966, Martineau’s car struck the little boy who eventually died from his injuries.

The long arm of grief and tragedy

The crash and resulting deaths shocked and horrified Redding residents. At the time, this was a city of just 15,000 people, a place where nearly everyone had connections one way or another to the girls, Martineau, the logging truck driver, and/or all six teens’ friends, family and loved ones. The resulting domino effect also reached ancillary individuals, such as neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, funeral-home staff, educators, florists, law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, with second-tierĀ  extensions to all those people’s friends, families and loved ones. Yet others include at least one teen who’d planned to ride in Martineau’s car that day, but didn’t. Finally were those who happened upon the crash right after impact, before authorities arrived, such as the four people inside the Ford Bronco, passed by Martineau’s Chevy moments before the fateful head-on collision.

For some time, the crash was one of Shasta County’s cruelest, truest cautionary tales; one repeated for years to come.

Even so, the last 53 years have dulled and even erased the memory of that then-unthinkable 1968 event. Younger people or newcomers may never have heard of it. But for those closest to what happened, the crash remains an unrelenting source of profound, personal loss and pain.

Case in point is 66-year-old Curt Maddox of Redding. Maddox, a retired Redding Elementary school teacher, was just 13 on the afternoon of Sept. 28, 1968, as he played Pop Warner football with friends in Anderson. He was in the locker room when someone walked in and said, “Hey, did you hear about those five kids killed in a car accident on the way to Susanville?”

Maddox, who’d recalled that his sister and her friends were heading to Susanville that day for a football game, knew in his gut that his sister was among those killed. He was right.

Even now, more than five decades later, when people speak of his sister’s passing, Maddox is particular about the wording. Maddox said it took him more than three hours to get through the entire CHP report about the crash. He said reading the report was “tough” but it left him with an indelible impression.

“She didn’t ‘pass’,” Maddox clarified recently during a meeting at a downtown Redding restaurant.

“There’s no way to soft-pedal it: She was killed. She was taken from me.”

A 1969 Enterprise High School yearbook photo collage pays tribute to the students killed in the Sept. 28, 1968 crash. Top row, from left: Donna Maddox, Shelley Roberts and Deborah Johnson. Bottom row, from left: Jennifer Brewen and Kathy Van Doren. Photo courtesy of Curt Maddox.

Indeed, Donna Lyn Maddox was one of five 17-year-old Enterprise High School seniors killed that day. Also killed were most of Donna’s best friends, Jennifer Lee Brewen, Deborah Sue Johnson, Shelley Jane Roberts and Kathryn Van Doren.

Van Doren was a football cheerleader, Johnson was a football song-leader, Brewen was a basketball cheerleader, and Roberts, said to be Martineau’s girlfriend, dressed during sports events as the school’s hornet mascot, ‘Buzzy’.

All were EHS leaders, role models and seniors, excited to graduate in the spring of 1969.

The girls’ combined funerals took place inside Enterprise High School’s gymnasium where, instead of caps and gowns, there were five coffins and hundreds of mourners.

Meanwhile, that same day, directly across the street, Martineau’s rites of passage took place at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also attended by hundreds of people.

Among Curt Maddox’s clippings is this 1968 Redding Record Searchlight photo of Warren Martineau, 18, the driver who caused the crash that killed himself and five Enterprise High School students.

A Redding Record Searchlight story about Martineau’s funeral observed that that a trio sang, “Sometime We’ll Understand”.

The song’s time of understanding never arrived. And the crash that instantly killed six teens didn’t just shake the north state, but the tragic news spread across the globe. Closer to home, random details emerged:

California Highway Patrol officers guessed some of the crash victims were Enterprise High School cheerleaders by the black and yellow pom poms found at the crash site.

The velocity of the crash hit with such force that it took seven hours to extricate the teens’ bodies from the wreckage.

In Susanville, at halftime, after learning of the crash, the coaches, players and other cheerleaders decided to carry on with the game, believing that’s what the girls would have wanted. Neither school scored a point following the news. Enterprise High won the game, 7-0.

Looking back

As Maddox reflected upon his sister’s death that happened so long ago, he pored over yellowing newspaper clippings, old snapshots and a 1969 Enterprise High School yearbook that featured a tribute to the deceased students.

Curt Maddox, whose sister Donna was one of the Enterprise High School students killed in a 1968 car crash when he was 13, looks at 53-year-old newspaper clippings, photos and yearbooks. Photo by Doni Chamberlain

“In my mind, she’ll always be 17,” Maddox said as he flipped through yearbook pages. “She was such a free spirit. What gets me is that I was finally reaching that age as siblings when we were becoming friends. I lost my sister, but I lost my friend, too.”

Maddox also talked about the crash, the driver and the painful mental aftermath experienced by not just the Maddox family, but an entire mourning community. He explain how, the spring following the crash, a lighted memorial fountain was dedicated to the school with a plaque that displayed the girls’ names.

Although the fountain was refurbished and rededicated in 1989, eventually the fountain fell into complete disrepair. Students arrived and students graduated. More decades passed. Teachers retired. Eventually, it wasn’t uncommon for the average EHS student to know nothing about the memorial fountain, or the students’ deaths that inspired it.

Finally, it was at the 50th reunion for EHS Class of ’69 when classmates Steve Main, Ed Sandberg and Scott Roberts (brother of his deceased sister Shelley Roberts) joined forces to not just create a new fountain, but to proceed beyond the original visual plan. At that, the committee’s non-profit organization Remember The 5, was born under the tax-deductible umbrella of Enterprise High School’s parent club. Since then, these EHS class of ’69 members been joined by several others who’ve met on a weekly basis to implement their ideas and keep the project moving forward.

The first, most concrete plan is to construct an aesthetically pleasing brand new memorial fountain, complete with a waterfall, designed by architectural firm Nichols, Melburg & Rossetto, constructed by Guiton’s Pools, both of Redding.

However, their second, even more ambitious goal, is to reach teens via curriculum with targeted messages about making good choices related to not just driving, or even related to not drinking and driving, but help in avoiding actions with potential life-or-death consequences.

In short, the team hopes their curriculum will prompt young people to stop, think and ask difficult questions that may yield uncomfortable, albeit life-saving answers.

Maddox, as the younger brother of one of the victims, is on that committee. So is his wife Carol, a 1974 Shasta High graduate, and others, including Mark Twitchell of Redding, an EHS class of 1969 graduate who will never forget what happened.

For Twitchell, some details about the aftermath of the crash are vivid, such as his recollection that the caskets seemed too small at the funeral inside the school gym. Likewise, he remembers that some of the students sobbed openly, while others sat in stunned silence.

“It was such a horrific crash,” Twitchell said. “I put it out of my mind for years. Now this project has reconnected me with classmates, and it’s given us something positive to do with what was such a terrible time for the entire community.”

If the EHS Class of 1969 Memorial Committee has its way, high school students near and far will not just know about the memorial, but they’ll benefit from life-changing information gleaned from the curriculum.

The project

Although Carol Maddox, a 1974 Shasta High School graduate, never met her sister-in-law Donna, she believes that the Remember The 5 project could bring some additional meaning to Donna’s life and legacy.

“Curt and I both feel that in their deaths, this project could possibly help bring some good,” Maddox said of the teens whose lives were cut short.

“That brings some comfort.”

Remembering the 5, plus 1

For some committee members, like Maddox, the topic of Martineau, the 18-year-old driver, remains a sensitive, raw subject.

“I have mixed emotions about Warren,” Maddox said of Martineau, whose reckless driving ended his life, but also that of Maddox’s sister and her friends. Maddox said that for many years, he was angry at Martineau, whose father owned KRDG, a popular Redding radio station. But Maddox acknowledged that as he grew older, and he and his wife had children of their own, his perspective shifted from rage and blame to some measure of empathy and compassion.

“It’s one thing for families to carry the weight of their children’s’ deaths,” Maddox said. “But I cannot imagine what it would be like to carry the weight of knowing that your child’s actions killed five kids. At some point it occurred to me that he was a victim, too.”

Even so, no matter who or what’s to blame for the crash that robbed six Redding teens of their futures and imprisoned them as five eternal 17-year-olds and one forever 18-year-old, nothing can magically bring them back.

But for those on the Remember the 5 committee, and the volunteers working to bring the project to life, their hope is that their efforts will serve dual purposes: memorialize the teens who lost their lives, and prevent similar situations from happening to other students. Maddox pointed out that the curriculum could be useful for adults, too.

“We’ve all been in situations where we feel uncomfortable; like getting in a car with someone we shouldn’t,” Maddox said, before asking some hypothetical questions.

“Is that person a bad driver? Have they been drinking? What other choices do I have?”

Maddox said the committee has one goal.

“We like to say that if we can save one life, then this work will be worth it,” he said.

“The thing is, if it really works; if it causes kids to stop and think, then that’s great. But the crazy part is that we’ll probably never know, because that bad thing that might have happened won’t happen, all because a kid made a good choice. I really hate that, but I can live with it.”

###

Remember The 5 EHA Memorial Committee/Fountain Restoration Project

Photo source: Enterprise High School Facebook page.

Purpose: In conjunction with Enterprise High School, the Class of 1969 is raising funds to remember five classmates who died on Sept. 28, 1968 in a tragic vehicle crash. The committee promotes safe driving practices.

Goals:

  • Build a granite-and-water edifice to honor the girls and serve as a daily reminder of the 1969 tragedy for all members of the campus and community.
  • Partner with EHS administration, staff, students, community organizations and community members to raise funds and inspire volunteers to complete the project.
  • With Enterprise High School, develop curriculum for EHS students and the entire Shasta Union High School District using the 1968 story as a centerpiece for ongoing instruction regarding safe driving practices.
  • Develop a video that remembers the girls who died and in the 1968 crash, and that also promotes safe driving.
  • Establish ongoing Remember The 5 scholarships.
  • Establish a roadside marker at the crash site.
  • Raise money for the preliminary budget of $150,000.
  • In addition to fundraising efforts, accept in-kind donations of materials and labor.

To contribute:

Checks dated by Dec. 31, 2021 can be recorded as a 2021 tax-deductible financial donation. All checks may be made out to: “EHS PTSA” with “1969 memorial” in the memo line. Donations will go to the Class of EHS Memorial Committee/Fountain Restoration Project. Mail checks to EHS/PTSA, Enterprise High School, 3411 Churn Creek Rd., Redding, CA 96002.

For more information call (530) 410-1956, or email ehsclassof69memorial@gmail.com.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

32 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments