Lacey Jane Jarrell was weeks away from turning 17 when she was killed in a rollover crash on July 6. When life stopped for her, it changed for all who knew her — and for many who did not.
Michelle St. Rose was wilting as she readied her balcony for the crew coming to retile it — sweeping, moving furniture, sweating, holding a cell phone to her ear and complaining to her sister about it all.
It was July 6 — the second week in an early monsoon, a sweltering day that promised but never delivered cooling rain.
Below her balcony, River Road is a stretch of two-lane blacktop that curves just west of Swan Road, then enters a series of turns as it dips into a wash.
An "S" is outlined in black on a yellow highway caution sign that sets the speed limit at 30 mph. Motorists routinely disregard the warning.
It was close to noon when St. Rose heard tires squeal and looked down to watch a black Su-baru swerve from one side of the road to the other, hit an embankment, then roll.
"It was a lot like watching something you'd see in the movies. I guess it was actually going very fast but, for me, it was actually in slow motion.
"Then it stopped and it was dead quiet ... so quiet."
Days before, Nancy Jarrell had experienced one of those daytime reveries where the thoughts come unbidden and unwanted.
She saw herself at a funeral, a child's funeral, one of her two children. At first she thought it was her son, Will, then realized it was a service for her 16-year-old daughter, Lacey.
She banished the thought, but it loitered just outside consciousness. On July 6, a Thursday, around 11 a.m., she was at Sierra Tucson, where she is assistant director of clinical programs. A nurse tapped her lightly on the shoulder.
"She is going to tell me something has happened to Lacey," Nancy Jarrell thought.
Lacey Jane Jarrell was still sleeping at 11 a.m. July 6, enjoying a summer morning with no school or soccer practice and nothing planned until her work shift that evening as a hostess at Montana Avenue restaurant.
She had spent part of the evening before with friend Christina McAlpin. She painted Christina's nails in several layers of bright nail polish. They had talked about nothing and everything. They talked about the new boy Christina had introduced to Lacey after she broke up with Ernesto Chavez, who had been the love of her young life, her first, her only until March.
Lacey remained torn about Ernesto. He continued to call and they still hung out occasionally. He called shortly before noon July 6, woke her up and insisted on seeing her.
She drove to the parking lot of St. Francis in the Foothills Church to pick him up so his car wouldn't be seen at her house. He wasn't supposed to be there when her mom was working.
She left the house in bare feet, in the St. Gregory T-shirt and boxer shorts she had worn to bed. Two words on the back of the T-shirt: "Passion" and "Intelligence."
Ernesto brought doughnuts and a single red rose as a peace offering.
Neither wore a seat belt as Lacey drove the quarter mile from the church toward her home.
Lacey was angry with Ernesto as she headed downhill and maneuvered her Subaru WRX through the curves. The speedometer hit 50 to 55 mph. He told her to slow down. She looked at him and asked "Why?" Then the car started sliding and she said, "Oh shit."
Michelle St. Rose hung up on her sister and dialed 911, reporting the crash before the car stopped rolling. She ran down her drive to River Road, bare feet on superheated pavement, calling back to her 9-year-old daughter Robby to bring her shoes, then ordering Robby to return to the house, afraid of what she might see.
Mother and daughter had not had the best week. The night before, Robby had called from her dad's house to ask if she could extend her July 4 weekend visit another day. St. Rose, in the middle of a divorce, had been hurt by that, became angry with her little girl. She answered her question with a sarcastic "Whatever" and hung up without saying "I love you."
The car had rolled, twice, three times, St. Rose isn't sure.
Another car had pulled over at the scene and two women got out as St. Rose arrived. She joined them in a shared sense of futility.
The girl in the car had been thrown and the car had landed, upright, on top of her. Only her foot was visible. They couldn't move the car, didn't want to try, just in case. "We called to her. She never responded," said St. Rose.
There was a young man there. "He didn't know what was happening. He kept talking to her, trying to get the car off her.
"I'm very Christian," St. Rose said. "I said 'All I can do is pray.' I held onto her foot and just prayed. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done."
A Rural/Metro crew arrived within four minutes and took the young man, Ernesto Chavez, in obvious shock but otherwise unhurt, to an ambulance.
Lacey was "obviously deceased" when the first-responders arrived, sheriff's reports said. An autopsy would later identify the cause as blunt-force trauma to the head.
The paramedics inflated bags to raise the car and hooked Lacey up to a machine that transmitted vital signs to Northwest Hospital. A doctor there officially pronounced her dead at 12:15 p.m. while her body still lay on the side of River Road, just 200 feet from the gated entrance to her home.
The tap on the shoulder at 11 a.m. had been nothing, some routine piece of business at Sierra Tucson. But two hours later Nancy Jarrell was certain something was terribly wrong.
Her housekeeper had called to say she couldn't get to the house. River Road was blocked and traffic detoured. Jarrell initially dismissed the road closure as an artifact of the monsoon rains, then the housekeeper called back to say there had been a fatal accident.
Nancy called home and Lacey's cell, couldn't get an answer. When she was asked to come to the office, she said, "I knew. I already knew."
In the office, a deputy and a volunteer victim counselor gave her the news, after first asking if her daughter had stars tattooed on her foot. She had no permanent tattoos but, yes, if it was stars, it was Lacey. She loved stars and the color green.
Nancy's co-workers called a friend to drive her home, and some of them followed in a caravan of cars.
In the preceding year, Nancy had buried her father — a Wall Street lawyer and mining CEO — and then her mother, who died a week later.
Nancy flew back to Princeton, N.J., both times, arranged the memorial services, wrote the obituaries, delivered the eulogies, managed the estates.
This time, she felt far less capable.
Michelle St. Rose returned to the house, to her daughter. The two men coming to tile the porch, held up for hours by the emergency closure of River Road, arrived to find St. Rose still sobbing uncontrollably. She told them why. One of the men held her as she cried.
Robby wanted to do something, so about four hours later, she selected a teddy bear and walked down the hill with her mom to leave it at the accident site where a memorial to Lacey Jane Jarrell would grow over the coming months.
Before the day ended, St. Rose called her son, Jay, 19 and living on his own, cooking at L'il Abner's Steak House, going to college. They spoke every couple of weeks since he'd left home. She decided to change that.
"I'm just going to tell you this," she told her son on the phone that night. "I'm going to call you every day and remind you to drive safely and wear your seat belt, and tell you, 'I love you.' "
Ernesto's mother, Mel McBeath, was at her Midtown home when her son called from the scene of the accident.
"He's yelling. He's making no sense at all. The sheriff's officer got on the phone. He said, 'Ernesto's fine.' I said, 'Is Lacey OK?' He said, 'No, she's not.' I made it to the accident scene in six minutes. Seeing her on the side of the road, it was just too, I don't know, surreal. It didn't make any sense."
Mixed emotions. She was elated her son was OK, crushed that Lacey had died, this young woman who had been the bouncy center of her family gatherings for the past three years.
She insisted that Ernesto go to the hospital to be checked out, but other than a few bruises and a cut on his leg he was fine — physically.
When he was discharged, they headed for the Jarrell home. "I told Ernesto that Nancy would want to know every last detail so be prepared and tell her what she needs to know."
They arrived to the usual numb chaos that descends on a gathering of survivors — grief's alien atmosphere, which people often describe as being underwater. "It's like you put on a uniform, a wet suit or something," said McBeath. "This is you now."
McBeath said she never expected Nancy's reaction to Ernesto's arrival. "Nancy came up to him, hugged him, said, 'I'm so glad you're alive. I don't know what I would have done if I lost both of you.'
"To have that kind of compassion and love and insight. She is a remarkable human being," McBeath said.
Nancy, whose impulse in those early days was to look for somebody to blame, said she meant every word.
"I never would have wanted the two of them to go. Did I think, 'Gee, couldn't it have been Ernie instead of Lacey?' Yes. But I would not want Lacey to be going through what Ernie's going through. I would not want Mel's role."
Nancy managed to greet all 700 people who turned up at Lacey's funeral and memorial service.
Alan DeKalb, one of the Rural/Metro paramedics at the crash scene, was among the mourners. "This death affected me more than any other in the 16 years I've been doing this," he said.
The day of Lacey's funeral was DeKalb's day off. "I put on my Class A's and went to the service," he said. It was the first time he had attended a funeral connected to his job.
He talked to Nancy Jarrell and asked permission to bring the entire crew.
"Engine 74 came by, and they all met Nancy and talked for quite a bit. Since then, we've become pretty good friends."
DeKalb has an 18-year-old son, which makes him more affected by the death of a teenager, but that doesn't fully explain his reaction. "I can't quite put a finger on it," he said. "Why? It has something to do with doing this for a long time and you just get sick and tired of seeing dead kids."
After Lacey's death, he enlisted fire/medic Paul Smith, who was also on the scene, to visit with Nancy Jarrell.
"We both were struggling," Smith said. "He said, 'Let's hook up. It might be good for all of us.'
"It was a catharsis," he said.
Smith has no children of his own, but at age 42, he said, he has come to realize the true tragedy of a young person's death. "At first, when you're 22, 23, just out of college, you don't realize how little any of us have lived yet."
The death of a young person jolts you from your carefully cultivated detachment, he said. "You run these calls, the next day you do your taxes. We say, 'Oh, there's another kid killed; another 68 blown up in Baghdad.'"
This time he was reminded of why he is in this line of work. "You're doing this because you care and you love people."
It wasn't supposed to happen.
The odds were stacked in Lacey's favor, even though car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers of driving age in the United States, killing about 6,000 last year.
Her Subaru WRX received four- and five-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in crash tests. It is a fast car, a cult car, turbocharged and air-cooled to squeeze 227 horsepower from a four-cylinder, 16-valve engine, but it is also a safe car. Nancy Jarrell researched that before she and Lacey's father, Buddy, bought it for her.
It is built to handle speed and maneuvers well with the added traction of all-wheel drive. It has front and side air bags and a "ring frame reinforced" body to protect its occupants.
Lacey was a competent driver, but she liked to put her rally car through its paces. She and Ernesto had added a cold-air intake for the injectors and a blow-off valve for the turbocharger, which increased its horsepower. Christina McAlpin remembers being a little scared, sitting in the back seat of Lacey's car as her friend took the dips and curves of Roller Coaster Road one evening, but Lacey was confident, not reckless, she said.
Most fatal accidents happen at night, and these kids were driving at noon.
Boys are killed at twice the rate girls are.
Forty percent of traffic fatalities involve alcohol or drugs. Neither was a cause in Lacey's crash.
Lacey wore her seat belt, her mother and her friends said. She refused to drive unless everyone in the car was buckled up, said her friend Emily Heintz.
But she wasn't wearing her seat belt this time, and neither was Ernesto. You can apply a pretty good rule of thumb in rollover accidents, said paramedic Paul Smith: You wear a seat belt, you're basically unhurt. You don't wear one, you're most likely dead.
In this case, Ernesto managed to brace himself and stayed in the car. Lacey was thrown free. He lived. She died.
Lacey Jarrell's friends envied her big green eyes and her smooth, ivory skin. She was perfectly proportioned with an athlete's easy grace. She was beautiful but, like most teenagers, she wasn't totally satisfied with her looks. "Everyone thought she was gorgeous. She wanted tan skin, a bubble butt, major thighs," said Emily.
She was athletically gifted. In junior high, she played basketball, softball and soccer. She settled on soccer for high school and was slated to be St. Gregory's team captain this year.
She was artistic — a photographer and a poet. She was smart and intellectually curious. "If she didn't feel that she understood a point completely and profoundly, she'd ask question after question after question (after question) until she did, refusing to take an answer at face value," teacher Kate Oubre wrote in the school newspaper after her death.
She drank Dr Pepper and ate the usual teenage fare, Emily said. "We'd each order a medium pizza and Buffalo wings, ranch on the side, sit and watch TV, go to Blockbuster, rent, usually comedies, but she just loved scary movies.
"She was beautiful, she was smart, she was very talented at anything she wanted to do, yet she never came across as though she was better than other people," Emily said.
"If she saw somebody who looked sad, she'd ask, 'What's wrong?' For some reason they'd open right up. She just didn't like to see people hurting."
Will Jarrell's little sister was only 10 when their parents divorced, but even then, she was looking out for him.
"Lacey was kind of a teammate more than a sister, and during that time she became team captain, taking over, being the solid rock for everyone, even though she was the youngest," said Will, a 21-year-old creative-writing major at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
She was mature, but she didn't act "grown-up."
"She was really goofy," said her friend Christina McAlpin. "She would make these really ugly faces and still be pretty."
She kept her childish joy and would perform a dance called "Lacey Jane shakes her leg" in which she would hold onto something and simply shake her leg. Her parents found it cute at age 3; her friends found it cute at 16. She demonstrated it one day in the cafeteria at St. Gregory's. "That's when I said 'I really love this girl,'" said her friend Megan Shaw.
"She was kind of the live wire around here," said Susan Heintz, upper-school head at St. Gregory and Emily's mother.
That's not to say she was perfect: "She was a teenager. She did all those things teenagers do. If she were a saint, she wouldn't have been as much fun."
Her seventh-grade English teacher, Cheryl Pickrell, said Lacey was one of the rare students who didn't outgrow her middle school teachers when she moved on to the high school campus at St. Gregory. She would stop by to ask how Pickrell was doing.
"Lacey really was a remarkable girl," she said. "She was full of life and really made you feel she loved you. Who doesn't love a being like that?"
Now she's gone, though her friends and family say Lacey remains a very real presence in their lives. There are signs and wonders — glimmers of hope amid inconsolable grief.