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Only the good die young

A talented aerial skier, an aspiring filmmaker, a star soccer player, an equestrian champion, and an avid adventure-seeker Five young adults, all on the threshold of adulthood, all taken too soon.

For the close-knit community of Park City, 2008 got off to a grave start. On Feb. 3, locals were shaken by news of the sudden death of 19-year-old Mike Pennels, a 2006 Park City High School (PCHS) graduate. Pennels died in his sleep due to an unknown cause.

On April 13, Parkites were stunned again upon hearing of the death of Connie Blount, 18, another former PCHS student who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while attending the University of Kentucky.

And exactly one week later, their grief was amplified after a similar type of accident claimed the life of Matt Knoop, a 20-year-old Parkite who was serving a mission in Brazil.

One would think that three fatalities were more than enough for one small town, but the angel of death wasn’t done yet. On June 30, yet another Park City teenager, Christopher Yeates, died while hiking in the Austrian Alps with fellow students.

Then, less than two weeks ago, tragedy struck for a fifth time in the past eight months with the death of 17-year-old Erica Knell in a car accident.

The eerie connection in this series of freak accidents is that Pennels, Blount, Knoop, Yeates and Knell all graduated from Park City High School within two years of one another. In fact, it’s quite possible that at some time, the five of them attended the same sporting event or mingled at the same social gathering.

The deaths of these five individuals reverberated near and far as the local community as well as former students around the country learned of the tragedies. In an outpouring of support, friends, family members and well-wishers connected through social networks such as Facebook, where groups dedicated to each victim drew up to 800 members, and message boards where hundreds more shared memories and offered support.

Whether it’s been months or merely days since the passing of their loved ones, friends and families of Mike, Connie, Matt, Chris and Erica are still reeling from the loss. Below, a sister, a brother, a best friend, a mother and a boyfriend share how they are coping with grief and how they are commemorating the lives of those who were taken much too soon.

Michael Pennels

Described by friends as a fearless adventure-seeker, Mike Pennels tried everything from sky diving to racecar driving. He was a member of the Brant Moles’ Big Mountain ski team for three years, a certified SCUBA diver and a talented saxophonist and bassoonist.

At a memorial service several months after Michael’s death, friends and family came together to celebrate his life. Guests viewed a slideshow of Michael’s life, shared stories and danced to swing music played by the PCHS Varsity Jazz Band, in which Michael played during his high school years.

Michael’s family chose sunflowers to symbolize his life, and guests at the memorial received seed packets to take home and plant in his honor. Although the Pennels did not plant any sunflowers near their home, Mike’s younger sister Mia says that this summer, "Beautiful, tall sunflowers grew thick along the edge of our property. A particularly large, hearty sunflower also grew directly in front of our house."

"Michael’s life had a profound impact of the way I live life and who I am," says Mia, who was 17 when her brother passed away. "As we grew up together, he taught me valuable lessons, such as to face every new adventure with calm resolve."

Like many who are dealing with grief, Mia says she has not found a good coping strategy. She tries to be strong for her parents, which oftentimes mean pushing her own emotions aside. "For now," she says, "it’s a matter of waiting, as time passes, for simple joys to slowly return to day-to-day life."

Connie Michelle Blount

Anyone who knew Connie will never forget her infectious smile. Kathryn Schiefer, one of Connie’s best friends, can’t think of that smile without remembering Connie’s laugh and her stories. "I miss everything about her," she says.

Schiefer says that her life has changed 180 degrees since Connie’s passing. "It’s not that I live each day in fear of losing someone else I love, but the fear of not living every day like it was my last." Connie put her whole heart into her friendships, Schiefer says. "There wasn’t a piece that anyone felt was missing — she was always there, and she still always will be."

Schiefer’s advice for friends of Erica Knell is to let time heal. She says that it helps to let go, to allow herself to cry and to talk to Connie. "She talks back. You just have to open your heart and listen."

Connie’s brother, Thor, feels similar pangs of longing. He wishes he could still talk to Connie on a daily basis. "There is such a huge hole in my life now," he says, "I don’t think life will ever be the same again." He says that it’s hard to think of having fun when Connie can’t share in it.

In commemoration of their beloved daughter and sister, the Blount family set up the Connie Blount Memorial Fund, which benefits equestrian majors at the University of Kentucky. Her father is also writing a book titled "Connie’s Message."

Matthew Lawrence Knoop

Matt Knoop was known for his outgoing personality, his passion for soccer and his dedication to his religion. Ali Knudson met Matt in the third grade and remained a close friend throughout Matt’s life. They even attended college together their freshman year at Utah State University. When Matt traveled to Brazil for his mission, he and Knudson kept in touch through emails and letters. Knudson said that Matt loved Brazil and it was exactly what he wanted to be doing. When he returned, Matt planned to continue his education and looked forward to playing soccer again, Knudson says.

In commemoration of Matt’s life, Knudson and two friends helped compile a memory book to present to his family. The tribute features pictures, messages, and stories collected from friends, teammates and classmates. Knudson said that the book was being delivered last week.

Knudson recalls being angry at first that her friend was taken away. She says that she found the best way to deal with such a loss is to stick together and remember the person’s life in a positive light. "Remembering Matt makes me want to be a better person," she said, "All he wants is for us to be happy and live up to our potential."

Christopher Yeates

Kelly Yeates, an English teacher at Park City High School, watched as the lives of three former students were cut tragically short. She never imagined her own son would be next.

Working at the high school has been both a gift and a curse in terms of the grieving process. "Some days it has been easier, and some days it has been harder [being around Chris’s peers]," she says. "When I’m here, he’s everywhere, but it’s a good thing because he’s with me every day." Yeates says the family tries to keep Chris present in their lives by talking about him, visiting with his friends and getting involved in memorial projects.

Chris’s 11-year-old sister, Meghan, is helping with the production of "CHANNELED," the film tribute being produced by several of Chris’s friends who share his passion for filmmaking. The family is planning a trip to Austria for next summer, where they will meet with friends and family on June 30, the anniversary of Chris’s death, for a memorial hike to celebrate his life. John Krenkel, the PCHS teacher who led the Europe trip this past summer, has been working with Austrian officials to erect a memorial in the spot where Chris fell.

Two scholarship funds have been set up in Chris’s name, one for students interested in film and one for kids who want to travel the world but can’t afford it. "Everyone has to grieve in their own way," says Yeates. "If anything has helped, it’s been having Chris’s friends around and keeping his memory alive."

Erica Knell

Those who were close to Erica are still grappling with the immediate aftermath of her death. The emotions they are feeling run the gamut from shock to denial to anger.

Jamie Knell shared the type of bond with Erica one only finds among sisters. She had watched her little sister grow into herself over the past few months, and felt that Erica was becoming more comfortable in her own skin. Jamie says that the family has been on a roller coaster of emotions since the accident – "One day, we’ll be laughing hysterically at a memory and the next we’ll be broken down in tears."

Losing someone close to you makes you realize how short life is, says Jamie. "You think that you have a lot of time – that you don’t need to reach out to someone today and say what you want to say – but that’s not true." She says she’s grateful for the time the family spent together on a recent trip to Lake Powell.

Paul Hanley dated Erica for about a year-and-a-half before the accident. He had spoken with Erica the night before she died, and planned to hang out with her the evening of Sept. 5, when Knell was killed while driving from Salt Lake City to her parents’ home in Park City. Hanley is trying to cope with a loss he doesn’t want to accept. "The past 10 days have felt like one long day," he says. "My mind and body are trying to protect me right now, because if I felt everything at once, I would explode."

Hanley helped Erica’s sisters, Jamie and Emily, construct a roadside memorial at the site of the accident. He says he’s close to the family and plans to stay in contact with them. "I wish there were words to describe my relationship with Erica — it was sacred, special," he says. "I’m truly fortunate that I got to experience it."

The family is planning to commemorate Erica’s life each year on Sept. 5 with a gathering at the Utah Olympic Sports Park, where friends and family members will celebrate Erica’s life and even have the chance to attempt the aerials ski jump in her honor.

Editor’s note: The author, Alisha Self, graduated from Park City High School in 2004.


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