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How a distracted driver ended the life of an Eritrean student

Yohannes Mehari’s 19-year-old daughter Senhit was killed in a car crash in Winnipeg by a young distracted driver. (Kevin King / Postmedia Network)



By Jonathan Sher | NationalPost

Thirty-two years after Yohannes Mehari fled war and persecution in Eritrea, on a journey that would take him to the heartland of Canada, he and his wife, Tensae, stood on a Winnipeg street corner looking at the mayhem of smashed cars, flashing lights and a blood-soaked boulevard.

Minutes earlier, they had been awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call. Their 19-year-old daughter, Senhit, had been in a car crash.

“It was like a war zone, all these ambulances, police cars,” Mehari said. “We had to wait for almost a half hour without knowing what happened to our daughter . . . One lady told me Senhit had a kind of pulse. (Senhit) was kind of between death and life, struggling.”

Senhit was a dynamo. She excelled at school, travelled the world on her own, and was always the gravitational force in her circle of friends.

“She was like a fireball,” said Eden Andu, a fellow Eritrean and someone whom Senhit had taken under her wing.

That autumn day — Sat., Oct. 30, 2010 — had been typical: Senhit spent much of it at the University of Manitoba working on a project on refugees, then returned home and persuaded three friends to go out to a Halloween party.

Her best friend, Yohanna Asghedom, didn’t want to go; the future medical student had been studying relentlessly and had a test the following week. But Senhit’s enthusiasm was too much to resist, so Yohanna offered to drive, and along the way in her Pontiac Sunfire, picked up Eden and Amutha Subramaniam, both a year younger and in their first year at the University of Manitoba. At the party they’d meet a fifth friend, Lysbeth Arthur, and offered her a ride home with plans to stop at a McDonald’s on St. Mary’s Road just past a major intersection at Bishop Grandin Boulevard.

Postmedia can’t report the name of the driver whose choices that night placed her on a collision course with the five friends, whose impact is still felt today. A Winnipeg judge ordered a publication ban on her identity.

But she had a history of drinking, driving and texting. She even admitted later that she often texted and drove, confident in her ability to multitask despite nearly getting into accidents a number of times, court records show.

It was while attending a second party that night that the 17-year-old downed six shots of Captain Morgan rum, she would tell an emergency room doctor. (The Crown initially laid impaired-driving charges against her for the crash, but they were stayed because there were concerns as to whether she would have been over the legal limit when the crash occurred.) Friends tried to take away her keys, but she got in her Chevrolet Cavalier at 2 a.m.

In the next 50 minutes, she sent and received 23 text messages from four people, dialed five phone numbers and picked up two incoming calls, her activity on her BlackBerry Bold getting more frenetic as she drove. In the 11 minutes before she reached the intersection, she received one incoming call, dialed three numbers herself and sent and received 12 texts, almost all about directions to pick up a friend from a bar, records obtained by Postmedia show.

One minute before impact, she sent a text apologizing for the confusion over directions. “I’m so sorry,” she typed. Soon she raced by another vehicle — she had set the cruise control to 96 kilometres an hour on a street where the limit was 80 km/h. Notified that she had received another text, the 17-year-old looked at the phone again, oblivious to the red light ahead.

Cars are not optimally designed to protect people against being T-boned. While a car’s engine and hood absorb much of the force of a head-on collision, the thin layer of metal along the doors does not when a vehicle is struck from the side.

Yohanna can’t recall the crash that broke her left hip, left elbow and several ribs. Only Eden, the farthest from the point of impact, would wake up as the car spun off the boulevard, opening her eyes with no sense yet of the violence of the collision.

Eden called out to Yohanna but there was no reply. She looked back and saw Amutha and Lysbeth slumped forward, their hair hiding their faces and the extent of their injuries. Eden was so confused she didn’t notice Senhit was missing or that the rear window had shattered.

“I was able to walk out, and then I saw Senhit (lying) on the boulevard . . . I couldn’t even cry. I was so scared. I was so confused. How did she get here?”

Amutha Subramaniam (RIP)
By the time Senhit’s parents were allowed to approach the wreckage, ambulances had taken away all of the girls but Eden and police said they didn’t know to which of the city’s three hospitals.

Senhit’s parents eventually found her at the Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg. Doctors were waiting for them. Senhit did not make it.

Amutha’s older sister, Anita Vijayanathan, awoke around 3 a.m. It wasn’t long before there was a knock on the door: Eden’s sister was there, explaining that the girls had been in a crash just minutes from their home.

Anita and her mother rushed first to the crash, then to the Health Sciences Centre, then to Victoria General. When they arrived, they found Amutha with a breathing tube no longer in use but still down her throat. She, too, was dead.

Anita’s thoughts turned to her father. The night of the crash, Myl Subramaniam was in India on a business trip, the first he had ever taken far from home – his family persuaded him to go after years of resisting because he was afraid something might happen to them.

Anita tried to reach him, desperate to get him on a plane before he heard the crushing news, but before family friends tracked him down, media reported Amutha’s death, so when Myl Subramaniam phoned his eldest daughter, he asked if his youngest daughter was dead.

The crash scene at Bishop Grandin Blvd. and St. Mary’s Rd. in Winnipeg. (Court exhibit)

“I never heard my dad cry until then. He was delirious,” she said.

When he arrived in the Winnipeg airport, Anita went to meet him, but both were wracked with guilt. “We looked at each other and then turned away.”

Amutha’s father blames his absence for his daughter’s death, and what had been chronic illness became much worse. Within two years, Myl Subramaniam had lost 50 pounds and his kidneys, lungs and eyesight were so badly compromised he could no longer work. “At that point I just didn’t lose my sister, I lost my parents,” Anita said.

The crash that killed Senhit and Amutha left Lysbeth with brain damage and rehabilitation that has continued ever since. “I can’t be another statistic or another kind of sad story so I really have to work hard and do this,” Lysbeth said.

Senhit Mehari (RIP)
Yohanna recovered from her broken bones but not the pain of losing her friends. She still doesn’t recall the collision and remembers awakening in hospital with no idea why she was there. When friends started arriving in large numbers to see her, she shooed than away, telling them they should spend time instead with Lysbeth and Senhit. Her friends left, but only briefly, returning in larger numbers and bringing with them a social worker, who held Yohanna’s hand. They told her Senhit was dead.

“That was when I actually lost it, because I didn’t think that was going to happen. I thought that when that happened to Amutha, that was the worst of it. As soon as the social worker said those words, I couldn’t stop crying . . . I didn’t feel any (physical pain) after that,” Yohanna said.

Only Eden was well enough to help bury her friends. She had written something to say at Senhit’s funeral, but when she was handed the microphone, she only found tears. “I was like broken. I was so broken . . . I hated the fact that we were even there for her funeral. I wanted to curl up in a ball and be by myself and cry all day long.”

The friends and family of the two dead teenagers have suffered immensely and will for some time to come. The young offender who killed them was sentenced to two years in jail and one year of community service. In court, she said she regretted her “deadly mistakes.”

“The damage I’ve done is permanent and it hurts me to know there’s nothing I can do to undo it,” she said. A forensic report concluded she was a low risk to reoffend.


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