March 2, 2008

Two Girls, Both 13, Killed in South Dayton Snowmobile Accident: Community Copes With ?Devastation’

By Karen Robinson and Maki Becker, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Mar. 2--SOUTH DAYTON -- This rural village was in shock Saturday as residents learned that two 13-year-old girls who grew up here, participated in Girl Scouts and played softball together were killed in a snowmobile accident.

"It's a devastation to a community this small," said Benny Bottita, the chief of the South Dayton Fire Department. "Two teenage girls -- it's just tragic.

Shelly-Ann Comstock, an eighth-grader at Pine Valley Junior-Senior High School, and her friend, Hannah Hunt, who was home-schooled in a family of 10 children, were reported missing Friday night after a third girl they were riding with lost track of them.

Three dozen law enforcement officers and volunteers searched all night and into the morning, fighting the bitter cold.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, a trooper spotted their overturned snowmobile off a large private driveway near the trail where they had last been seen and soon found their crumpled bodies. Both girls were wearing helmets. A preliminary autopsy indicated the girls both suffered spinal and internal injuries that likely killed them instantly.

"It was just two little girls," State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli said. "They were little dolls. It's heartbreaking."

Investigators were trying to piece together what happened, but all evidence seemed to point to an accident.

On Friday evening, Shelly-Ann, Hannah and the third girl, a 14-year-old whom authorities declined to identify because of her age, set out for a night of snowmobiling.

Shelly-Ann and Hannah were riding tandem in Hannah's family's shiny red 2000 Polaris 700 -- with Hannah, a seasoned snowmobiler, driving. The 14-year-old rode solo on another snowmobile. At about 7 p.m. they gassed up before heading to a popular, well-groomed trail.

It had been frigid earlier in the day, but the temperature had risen to about 27 degrees by evening. There was about 7 inches of fresh snow on the ground and the winds were blowing the snow around, limiting visibility.

The 14-year-old told authorities that the three headed up Merrill Road. She turned right at the trail head, but it appeared Shelly-Ann and Hannah missed it and kept going straight, police said.

At about 7:30 p.m., the 14-year-old looked back and realized her friends weren't there and began to panic. She rode around trying to find them and returned to her home.

Calls were made to the missing girls' parents and to other places the girls may have gone, but no one had seen them.

The family members set out looking for the girls. Shelly-Ann's mother, Cathy Pasinski, flagged down a state trooper at about 10:30 p.m., asking for help in the search.

Immediately, troopers, members of the Cattaraugus and Chautauqua County sheriff's offices and volunteers on snowmobiles began a search of the area.

The blowing snow and darkness made for difficult search conditions, Nigrelli said.

A command post was established at the South Dayton Fire Hall, and troopers had begun directing volunteers to trail heads to pass out fliers with photos of the girls.

Accident reconstruction investigators say they believe the girls' veered off the side of a wide, private driveway and struck a tree that sent them airborne. The girls then hit another set of smaller trees.

"These poor girls -- they just didn't see it," Nigrelli said.

Hannah was part of a family that embraced the snow. Saturday, a big snowman stood in front of their white, two-story farmhouse. Two snowmobiles were parked outside. The porch was covered with snowboards, snowmobile helmets and gloves.

"Hannah was a vivacious girl," said her aunt, Mary Roche of North Buffalo. "She loved to play softball, and she skied."

Hannah was an experienced snowmobiler, she added, although she wasn't very familiar with the trail off Merrill.

As one of 10 children, Hannah helped out in taking care of her younger brothers.

"She was a little mom to the little ones, and they keep asking when she's coming home," Roche said.

Her 23-year-old brother, Will, was among those who stayed out all night looking for the girls.

This village of 664 residents, where snowmobiling is a way of life, was reeling from the tragedy Saturday.

Many high school students ride their snowmobiles to school. On the weekends, the snowmobile trails are packed.

"Kids start snowmobiling down here as soon as they just about start walking," said Marlene Przybycien, a Pine Valley Central Schools employee.

The mood was somber at the coffee shop of Jenny Lee Country Store, a popular gathering spot, as customers discussed the events.

"Imagine what that other kid [the 14-year-old] will live with," said Walt Herrington of the nearby hamlet of Cottage.

"People that young have no fear of speed," said Horace Ivett, a retired snowmobile dealer, although there's been no indication that the girls were going excessively fast.

"That 700 sled never should have been built for trails," said Ivett, who said this model of snowmobile is capable of speeds of 100 mph and more. "That motor is too powerful for trail riding."

Ivett and Herrington, who used to ride snowmobiles together for years, called the snowmobile "too much sled for a kid."

With just 350 students at Pine Valley Junior-Senior High and 400 at the adjoining elementary school, the deaths hit the young people of the community hard.

Shelly-Ann, an eighth-grader, had gone to Pine Valley schools since kindergarten, and she was a member of both the modified girls softball and basketball teams.

"Shelly was like a mom to her little brother," said Donna Snyder, a guidance secretary at the school. "He absolutely adored his sister. He will be heartbroken."

She also has an older brother.

Hannah, who was home-schooled, was well-known and liked in the village.

Counselors were rushed to both the elementary and high schools Saturday to console stunned and grieving students and staff. A battle of the bands, a fundraiser for the senior class that had been scheduled for Saturday night, was canceled.

"It's going to be tragic," said Pete Morgante, Pine Valley Central School District superintenden t. "It's sad. You feel sorry for the kids."

The schools currently don't offer any snowmobile safety classes, although local ski clubs do throughout the season.

"Maybe we need to," Morgante said. "Sometimes, it takes a tragedy."

At least three other people have been killed in snowmobile accidents in the region this season.

On Tuesday, Michael L. McClellan, 35, of Stow was killed while riding a snowmobile on Chautauqua Lake. Chautauqua County sheriff's officials say they believe he struck a concrete breakwater, flipped into the air and struck a boat lift stored on the shore.

On Feb. 10, John Kaczmarski, 18, a former football player at St. Francis High School and a resident of Kaisertown, died while snowmobiling in Verona, Oneida County. Kaczmarski was riding on a field when he hit some rough terrain . His death marked one of four in nine days that struck Oneida.

And on Dec. 21, Mario V. Sabia, 24, of West Seneca died in Pembroke, where he crashed into a metal gate, according to Genesee County authorities.

At least five other people suffered serious injuries in snowmobile accidents in December.

By state law, children between ages 10 and 13 are allowed to ride snowmobiles if they have completed a safety course and are accompanied by an 18-year-old. For teens between 14 and 17, they may ride unaccompanied if they've completed the safety training.

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