A day set aside to reflect on new beginnings ended in tragedy and grief for the West Potomac High School community when a 2004 Volkswagen convertible collided with a tractor trailer at the interchange of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 on Thursday, June 14. Four young women died in the crash.
Elaine "Nettie" Thackston, 20, was driving four teenage girls to a D.C. nightclub a little after 10:30 p.m. when she veered off the Beltway, crossed over a safety zone and tried to merge onto an Interstate 95 ramp into the path of a tractor-trailer carrying frozen food. The car was then knocked into the path of another tractor-trailer and eventually smashed into the ramp’s concrete retaining wall, according to the Virginia State Police.
Thackston, the driver, and three of the passengers — Thackston’s roommate Sarah Carter, Carter’s cousin Lydia Petkoff and Petkoff’s classmate Renee Shelkin — were killed. Jena Rexroat, 17, was the only woman to survive the accident, though she had to be cut out of the car and taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Petkoff and Shelkin had graduated from West Potomac High School just hours before, Rexroat, also a student at West Potomac, is to graduate in August. Carter, a 2005 West Potomac graduate, and Thackston were in their second year at George Mason University.
Four of the women lived or grew up in Mount Vernon. Thackston was originally from Troy, N.H.
Police found a bottle of vodka in the car but have not determined whether alcohol was involved in the accident. They also do not know whether the women were wearing seatbelts. The driver of the tractor-trailer was found not to be at fault, authorities said in a statement.
Sarah Carter, 19
George Mason University student, West Potomac High School Class of 2005
Hellen Moffit, 12, remembers the day when she and her babysitter, Sarah Carter, 19, bought matching sweatpants that were blue with the word "pink" written on them. Carter had been babysitting for the Moffits for a little over a year at the time of her death last Thursday night. She was one of the most beloved babysitters Hellen and her 8-year-old brother Hugh had ever had, according to the preteen.
"Other babysitters didn’t really interact with me as much as Sarah did. She was always really nice and happy and fun to talk with. She kind of understood me," said Hellen.
Easy-going and low-key, Carter had a gift for making people, adults and children, feel relaxed around her, said friends and family.
"She never met a person who [didn't] immediately become her friend," said Sarah’s mother, Susan Carter, who added that her daughter felt comfortable with people of all ages.
"She was the most comfortable young lady in her skin that I have ever met," said Kim Middleton, whose son, Joel, was Carter’s boyfriend.
A recent graduate of George Mason University, Joel Middleton met Carter last fall, introduced by Nettie Thackston, the driver of the car in last week’s crash. The attraction was instant and the two started dating in October, Joel Middleton said.
Friends and family also described Carter as mature for her age. An accounting major, Carter already knew she wanted to be a certified public accountant like her mother.
Susan Carter said she fell fortunate to have spent a lot of time with her daughter and niece, Lydia Petkoff, over the last week. On Tuesday afternoon, Susan and Sara Carter spent the afternoon together. In the evening, Petkoff also came by for dinner, she said. The family also spent a lot of time together during Petkoff’s Thursday afternoon graduation and the cookout that followed.
"I feel very lucky to have had that time this past week," said Susan Carter.
Lydia Petkoff , 18
West Potomac High School Class of 2007
Even as a young child, Lydia Petkoff was interested in picking out her own outfits.
The recent high school senior would alter socks, shoes, jewelry and accessories she bought at the mall to her own liking. Once she had her own sewing machine, Petkoff started to custom tailor all of her clothes specifically to fit her, according to an e-mail sent by her immediate family.
"Lydia displayed many of the creative talents enjoyed by her relatives, especially those of her mother, Joan Van Ryzin, a local artist, and grandmother, Lydia Van Ryzin, a watercolor artist," said the e-mail signed by her mother, brother Harry Petkoff and father Richard Petkoff.
Petkoff was going to study art and design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond next fall until she was killed in last week’s fatal car crash near the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 interchange.
As a student at West Potomac, the slim blonde was outgoing and social. She had many friends and was good at talking and listening to people, wrote her family.
"Her smile and personality was a ray of sunshine in everyone’s life," said family members. Peers also described Petkoff as easy to get along with and outgoing.
"Lydia was always happy. Life was a party. She made the room glow," said Corey Wright, boyfriend of Renee Shelkin, another victim of the car crash. Petkoff and Shelkin had been very close friends since middle school, he said.
A fan of Bob Marley’s music, Petkoff dreamed of becoming a big fashion designer and then retiring on the beaches of Jamaica when she was old, said Schreiber.
Renee Shelkin, 18
West Potomac High School Class of 2007
Corey Wright told Renee Shelkin that he loved her before saying goodbye the night of her death. Together for four years, the high school sweethearts had driven back from Shelkin’s high school graduation party at The Firehouse Grill in Lorton June 14.
Shelkin intended to go out with "the girls" to a nightclub in Washington, D.C. and Wright wasn’t interested in tagging along. He gave Shelkin a hug and kiss before dropping her off for the night. He did not know it was the last time he would see her.
At about 10:15 p.m., Shelkin called Wright to say she would be leaving her phone in the car when they went into the club but that she would call him when they got out. Less than a half hour later, Shelkin and three other women had died after colliding with a tractor-trailer on an Interstate 95 ramp.
The two started dating the summer after meeting at the Fort Belvoir pool and had been inseparable ever since, he said
"She was my best friend. We hung out every day," said Wright, a 2005 Mount Vernon High School graduate.
A talented athlete and student, Shelkin had planned to attend Virginia Tech next fall. Family and friends described her as an easy going but hyper-organized person who was almost always in a good mood.
In high school, she juggled a job, varsity cheerleading and varsity softball and still managed to get good grades with little to no complaining, said her father Paul Shelkin.
"You never had to tell Renee to do her homework or to get up and go to school or not to be late to work," said Paul Shelkin. "She had relieved herself of all the little pressures in life."
"I basically lost the love of my life," Wright said.
Elaine "Nettie" Thackston, 20
George Mason University student, New Hampshire resident
When Elaine Minette Konietzko Schierioth Thackston, known as "Nettie" or "Minette," returned home two weeks ago for a car inspection, it seemed as if her life was coming together nicely, said her father Dick Thackston.
Sitting on the sidelines of her brother’s lacrosse game in Troy, N.H., Nettie Thackston chatted animatedly to her parents about the children she babysat for in Fairfax County and how much she enjoyed them. She also said she had decided to major in French at George Mason University.
"The last time I saw her, she was very excited she that had a good year at school. … She was trying desperately to act like she was interested in her brother’s lacrosse game no matter how bored she was," said Dick Thackston.
An avid traveler, Nettie Thackston had visited several other countries including Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain and Portugal. Her father said she chose to attend George Mason, where both her parents went to school, in part because of the Washington, D.C. area’s "international flavor." After college, she wanted to teach either English in France or French in the United States, he said.
With over 90 percent hearing loss, Nettie Thackston took particular interest in studying languages.
"The process of learning language was something that she learned to do early on and she had a certain fascination with it," said her father.
Her family plans to have a funeral service for her in New Hampshire.