COLUMBUS, Neb. — Smoke and flames poured from the engine of the little silver car.
Megan Castro had just seen the Mitsubishi tumble like a discarded beer can before coming to rest along U.S. Highway 30 on the east edge of Columbus. It was about 2:30 a.m. Jan. 28.
"I was, like, 'Is this a dream? Is this really happening?' "
She turned her car around, called 911 and rushed to help people she didn't know.
She found a young woman in the evergreen bushes next to the burning vehicle and dragged her to safety.
She helped the semiconscious driver out from behind the wheel, but she couldn't free an unconscious young man crammed behind the front passenger seat. The battered passenger door wouldn't open, and he was so tall, she couldn't pull him out.
The flames intensified. Castro screamed into her phone for help. Police and emergency responders arrived and tended to the victims and the fire.
Later, as the 24-year-old Schuyler woman tried to stop herself from shaking, an officer said yet another female passenger had been found in the bushes.
"When they told me she was dead, I just started crying," she said.
Twelve minutes later, just a few miles east into Colfax County, another 911 call was made from another accident scene.
Another rollover had pinned a 19-year-old man — the driver and sole occupant — underneath his car.
The Columbus crash killed two passengers. The Colfax County crash left a college student battered and bruised, but lucky to be alive. Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl would soon learn alcohol was involved in both accidents.
But they had much more in common.
"What are the odds that from one alleged party we would have two car crashes, in two different counties, occurring within minutes of each other and happening less than 10 miles apart?" the prosecutor said.
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Two early-morning car rides detoured by tragedy will now likely take months to wind through the legal system.
Genaro Anaya, 21, of Norfolk, the driver in the Columbus crash, faces two counts of felony motor-vehicle homicide and one felony DUI charge. He has yet to plead to the charges in Platte County District Court, but he's looking at a potential 45 years behind bars if convicted.
So far, the only other person charged in the case is the host of the party.
Christopher Vering, 21, of Richland faces three charges in Colfax County of procuring alcohol for a minor. Because he allegedly bought beer for the 19-year-old man who was hurt when he flipped his car, Vering is charged with one felony procuring count that could result in a prison sentence.
Had the party taken place in December, it would not have resulted in a felony charge against Vering. But a new law took effect Jan. 1 that increased the consequences for adults who supply alcohol to minors who then get hurt or hurt others.
The felony procuring charge was one part of a comprehensive legislative package passed last year to reshape Nebraska DUI laws and stiffen penalties. Among other things, the package added a charge of driving while intoxicated with a child, and it made changes to encourage greater use of ignition interlock devices.
But lawmakers also stiffened penalties for those who buy alcohol for kids or sell it to them. Under the former law, procuring for a minor was a misdemeanor that carried a maximum sentence of one year in jail. Now, when procuring leads to injuries or death, the supplier could face up to five years in prison.
The crackdown in the Legislature was motivated by three high-profile crashes in the Omaha area over two months in 2010 that left six dead: four motorcyclists killed by a single driver; a doctor killed while taking his son to his first day of school; and a newlywed killed by a drinker driving on a suspended license.
Kracl said she consulted with the Nebraska Attorney General's Office before filing the felony procuring charge against Vering. She was unaware of a prior use of the new law.
"The Legislature has concluded this is a serious enough issue to make it a felony," she said. "My job is to bring the charge I think I can prove."
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On the night of Jan. 27, Tyler Martens, 19, said he met Vering at a grocery store parking lot and paid him $25 to buy a case of Bud Light, according to a sheriff investigator's report filed in Colfax County Court.
Later that night, Martens arrived at a farmhouse near a cattle feed yard north of Richland, a small community between Schuyler and Columbus. Vering, who rented the house, was hosting a party.
During the party, Martens said, he shared his beer with two male friends, both minors. One of the friends was 19-year-old Curtis Rubeck of Columbus.
Rubeck and Martens left the party in separate vehicles shortly after 2:30 a.m. Martens happened upon Rubeck's wrecked Pontiac sedan in a ditch about a half-mile from the rental house and called 911.
An accident investigator determined the car left a gravel road, drove into a ditch and ramped a field driveway. While in the air, it hit a concrete pole and flipped. Rubeck was partially ejected from the front passenger window and was pinned by the car as it came to rest on the passenger side.
Rubeck was hospitalized with fractures to the back of his skull, a sinus cavity and collarbone. He also suffered damage to his optical nerve, and doctors removed his spleen. He is now out of the hospital, and the prosecutor said she is still weighing whether to charge him.
Martens told investigators that others attended the party.
Among them were Genaro "Gino" Anaya of Norfolk, who drove away with three passengers from Columbus: Skye Butterfield, 18; Zachary Tharnish, 22; and Candace Randall-Stewart, 19. The car crashed in the Columbus intersection.
Randall-Stewart died at the scene, and Tharnish died several days later at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Both suffered brain injuries.
According to a Columbus police investigator's report, Anaya had a blood-alcohol level of .151 percent, nearly twice the .08 state limit.
A check of Nebraska court records showed no prior DUI charges against Anaya, but he has been convicted of five counts of minor in possession of alcohol, all misdemeanors. He remains in Platte County Jail.
Bradley Ewalt, a Norfolk attorney representing Anaya, declined to comment on the case.
As for Vering, he faces procurement charges for the three minors who drank beer that he allegedly bought for Martens. The charges do not allege he provided the alcohol that factored in the Columbus crash.
Vering has had several other brushes with the law, mostly for misdemeanor traffic violations and criminal mischief.
Authorities released him from jail after his father posted $2,000 bail. Mark Ricker of Humboldt, Iowa, said his son would never intentionally harm anyone.
"I was gut-wrenched when I heard about this," Ricker said. "Chris is taking multitudes of counseling to deal with it. We both grieve for the families of the victims."
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A tiny tattoo behind her left ear reads "Bubby."
That's what Rachel Meeks called her younger brother, Zach Tharnish.
The 25-year-old Lincoln woman said Zach lived for two things: basketball and family.
He stood 6-foot-7 and was a member of the 2007 state champion team from St. Edward, Neb. His favorite player was Michael Jordan, and therefore he loved the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Chicago Bulls.
He played in college for a year before moving to Columbus and getting a job at Behlen Manufacturing. During practically every lunch hour, you could find him in a pickup game at the Columbus YMCA.
As for family, Zach bore tattoos with the initials of his parents, brother and three of his sisters. He was planning to add his two youngest sisters.
"If he could tell somebody was upset, he would do something to make them laugh," Meeks said.
Her mother called with the news at 5 a.m. Jan. 28. Meeks arrived at the hospital in Omaha shortly before her folks could make it from St. Edward.
Although Zach never spoke following the accident, he initially could squeeze a hand in reaction to a question or comment. But his condition gradually declined, and he died Feb. 1.
In a final act of love, he donated his organs.
When asked whether she was angry, Meeks shook her head and said she hadn't thought about anger.
If you drink, don't drive, she said. Understand that no one is invincible.
Forget the prosecutions and fines and prison time, she said.
Think, instead, about something far worse than a prison cell.
"Just consider though how many families, friends and lives have been so drastically changed because of these events," she said.
"Don't hesitate letting those that surround you know how much they mean to you. Don't turn down a chance to hug them and tell them how much you care about them.
"You never know what may happen that could take your next chance away."
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