Witnesses question dragster's tricks on highway lined with spectators

Monday, June 18, 2007
David Ferguson wept Sunday while standing at a memorial in Selmer, Tenn. A day after a drag-racing car careened into a crowd and killed six people in this small town, people were asking Sunday why the dragster was allowed to speed down a public highway with no guard rails, lined on both sides by spectators. (MIKE BROWN ~ The Commercial Appeal)

The driver, a pro drag racer originally from Australia, suffered minor injuries.

SELMER, Tenn. -- One day after a drag-racing car careened into a crowd and killed six people, witnesses questioned Sunday why the driver was allowed to speed down a highway with no guard rails, lined on both sides by hundreds of spectators.

"It ain't really safe to do anything with drag cars on a city street," said 19-year-old Garett Moore, who said he was about 15 feet away from the wreck, but was uninjured. "They shouldn't have done it."

Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Mike Browning said the six killed were in their teens or early 20s. The accident injured at least 18 others, including a 5-year-old boy, who were taken to hospitals in Tennessee and Mississippi.

The crash happened Saturday during an "exhibition burnout" -- when a drag racer spins his tires to make them heat up and smoke -- at the Cars for Kids charity event in this town about 80 miles east of Memphis.

Amateur video of the crash, broadcast on WMC-TV in Memphis, showed the car's engine revving loudly before the vehicle sped down a highway. After a few hundred feet, the smoking car skidded off the road and into the crowd.

Authorities identified the driver as pro drag racer Troy Warren Critchley, an Australian who is now based in Wylie, Texas. He suffered minor injuries and was taken by car to a nearby hospital for treatment, authorities said.

There were no criminal charges against Critchley, Browning said.

There was a guard rail along at least part of the highway, but not along the stretch where the crash occurred.

Nick Staples, who was at the car show and charity event with his wife and three children from Columbus, Miss., said he was standing 20 feet from where the car plowed into the audience.

"There should have been guard rails," Staples said. "But even if there had been, it wouldn't have mattered."

Larry Price, the founder of Cars for Kids, said he has been staging this event for 18 years in Selmer, and they always do burnouts at the end of the parade. There had been no accidents in the past, he said.

"We're not racing," Price said. "We're just doing little-old burnouts, revving the motors up, stuff like that."

There were four professional drag-racers at the show, and each was supposed to do one burnout, Price said. Most people burn the tires for less than 50 feet, but Critchley went much farther than that before losing control, Price said.

Kay White, a manager at the Elms Restaurant across the street from the accident, said she was taking a cigarette break when she heard a crash, screams and cries for help.

"The best way I could describe the crowd's reaction was like the people from 9-11. They were just walking around with a blank, distant stare," White said. "You could tell they were ... wondering what had happened."

Mourners placed small votive candles, flowers, teddy bears and a ceramic angel at the crash site, which is along state Highway 64 near the intersection with state Highway 45.

The Highway Patrol said Raven Griswell, 15, of Finger, Tenn., and Sean Michael Driskill, 22, of Adamsville, Tenn., died at the scene. Four others -- Brook L. Pope, 20, of Selmer; Scarlett Replogle, 15, of Selmer; Kimberly A. Barfield, 17, of Adamsville; and Nicole Griswell, 19, of Selmer, all died later in area hospitals.

Aeriel Hickman, a 15-year-old from Selmer, hurt her foot and left leg during the crash and was sent to a hospital in Jackson. She lost her friend Replogle.

"Personally, I don't think they should have been doing the burnout because they knew the danger it would cause. They should have put up a guard rail. That way it may not have killed anybody."

Matthew Brammer, administrator of AMS Pro Modified Series, which sponsors professional drag races, said Critchley had competed in the car that was involved in the wreck.

Critchley's Web site said he began his career in an engine building shop in Brisbane, Australia, in 1986, and then raced on the Australian circuit in the '90s. He moved to the United States in 1998. By late Sunday afternoon, the Web site carried a message saying it was not available.

Authorities closed the festival after the crash. About 40,000 to 60,000 people were expected to attend the weekend event.

Cars for Kids holds several events throughout the nation and raises close to $200,000 annually for charities that help children in need, according to its Web site.

A statement posted on the Web site Sunday offered an apology to the victims and their families: "The loss is deep within our hearts and we will carry the scars of each loss forever."

The charity was formed in 1990, two years after Price's son, Chad, suffered a severe head injury in a bicycle accident. Price promised that if his son was saved from lifelong injuries, he would spend the rest of his life raising funds for disabled children, according to the Web site.

Price said he hoped to keep the charity going, but he wouldn't do any more burnouts on public streets.

The town recently was in the national spotlight when a woman killed her preacher husband with a shotgun in the parsonage where the family lived and fled with her three small children. Mary Winkler, 33, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in April and sentenced to three years in prison.

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