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Too young, gone too soon

Family of teen killed in drunk driving accident sets up foundation

Posted: Sunday, January 10, 2010

Taylor White was a typical Juneau teenager when he died June 5 as a passenger in a drunk-driving accident only days after graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School, his mother said.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"I think one of the reasons it has had a lot of impact on the kids is they know they all could have either been in the driver's seat or the back seat," Carol White said. "And it's just a stroke of luck or fate that they weren't and a stroke of luck or fate that Taylor was."

Taylor White was ejected from the back seat of a car in the early morning hours of June 5 after driver Thomas "Tyler" Emerson lost control wile traveling more than 100 mph around a bend in the road near mile 37 of Glacier Highway and crashed into some trees. Emerson was also ejected, but survived, and a 17-year-old girl buckled in with a safety belt also survived the horrific crash that left the car in pieces. The accident was only a brief moment in time, but that was enough time to change numerous lives forever.

"The decision that killed Taylor and injured the others was made in the twink of an eye," Carol White said.

Although the pain is still fresh, the parties involved are moving forward the best that they can. The Taylor White Foundation for Advancing Our Community, Inc. has been established, a tight bond between the Emersons and Whites remains, and Tyler Emerson has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. With all that's been lost, Carol White is grateful that the accident didn't cause a fracture between the families, Taylor's friends or within the community.

"There really is absolutely nothing to be gained by assigning fault for this," she said. "It's all about here's where we are now, how do we move forward and get into a different place so this doesn't happen again and that's really what the foundation is about."

A tragic ride

The police came to the White's house in the early morning hours of Friday, June 5, to give them the tragic news that their only son had been killed in a car accident. Taylor White was partying out the road with some friends after graduating from high school on Tuesday, June 2.

"Taylor had played golf that day and gone over to a friend's house and watched a basketball championship and came home late and said, 'Mom, I'm gonna go out the road. I wanna go out the road. A bunch of people are camping.' And I said, 'Um, it's pretty late. You really think that's a good idea?,'" Carol White said.

Taylor White wanted to spend as much time with his friends as possible before he planned to go commercial fishing several weeks later and then off to college in Montana. He and his friends had grown up camping and spending time in the outdoors so it was a pretty typical outing, she said.

"Usually when they went out the road I felt safe because they weren't driving," White said.

The weather was warm, the skies were clear and the kids were excited to be finished with high school and already had a penchant for partying, she said.

"I think it was almost like a perfect storm," White said.

Emerson had recently got his car back from a repair shop and the three teenagers decided to go for a ride from their campsite sometime after 2 a.m. They drove farther out the road then headed back toward the campsite.

Emerson lost control around a slight bend near the campsite. The car turned sideways 180 degrees for several seconds, spun around and rolled three or four times as it careened off the right side of the road, crashing into some trees, according to court documents. Emerson and White were thrown from the vehicle. Kelly Childers, the only one wearing a seatbelt, remained in the vehicle.

Childers ran back to the campsite for help and two friends went back to the scene and they found White dead. The teenagers had to drive several miles toward town to be in cell phone range to report the accident.

Gone too soon

Taylor White was an outgoing teenager who cared deeply about his friends, his mother said. He liked to ski, fish, play video games and tinker around on cars.

"He was a pretty well-rounded kid but probably his most defining characteristic is he was extremely social," Carol White said. "His friends were really important to him. He was really good at being a friend."

The loss has been difficult for some people to accept because Taylor was so charismatic and moved so gracefully through life, she said.

"He listened. People felt heard, they felt cared about and loved when he was around," Carol White said. "He was also pretty stubborn and hard headed. He lived his life by his own terms and they were not necessarily the terms that we wanted him to."

Taylor and his friends had been known to party a bit, but they were good kids, she said.

"These kids that Taylor was friends with, most of them are very bright," White said. "They are from families where the parents are involved, they want to know what's going on, yet, they were fairly consistently making pretty high-risk decisions which meant the likelihood of something happening was pretty high, I think."

White grapples with many questions that led to Taylor's fateful decision to get in the vehicle that night. What was going on socially with these kids and why weren't there social stigmas associated with their behavior? How could things have been different? What decisions could have been made from early on all the way through the night of the accident to prevent something like this from happening?

"What are we doing as parents that could have more impact? Because honestly I don't know what else I could have done as a parent," she said.

Atonement

Emerson pleaded guilty Dec. 29 to criminally negligent homicide, a Class B felony.

From the very beginning, Emerson has taken responsibility for his role in the accident, White said. The Emerson family had gone to the White's house shortly after the accident and the families have remained extremely close since the accident.

"Our relationship is very solid," White said. "There has never been anything but pain, remorse, agony, horror, all of those things expressed by Tyler and his family."

There are some difficult times ahead for Emerson, who will forever bear the burden of a felony conviction and the tragic loss of a close childhood friend, but the Whites don't harbor resentment toward him.

"We've already lost one kid, we don't need to lose anyone more," White said. "And if you start blaming and doing that kind of thing when you have a tragedy like this, it seems like everybody loses."

And Taylor didn't have to get in the vehicle after Emerson had been drinking, either, she added.

"There were really two decisions that got made that night that killed Taylor," she said. "One of them was Tyler decided to drive drunk and the second was Taylor decided to get in the car."

Just as the Emersons did right after the accident the Whites are now being there for them in their time of need, White said.

"We're circling around and giving all the support we can possibly give," she said.

Emerson is scheduled for sentencing on April 14 in Juneau, where he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Moving forward

Taylor White touched a lot of people's lives in the 18 years he was alive, his mother said. His family didn't want him to die in vain so they decided to start a foundation in his name to help try to prevent another underage fatal alcohol-related crash from happening in Juneau again.

"Here was a great kid. We don't know what his contribution would have been to the world and he won't have a chance to make that contribution," White said. "I think that was the original seed for (the foundation)."

The foundation is presently working on a documentary about Taylor and the night of the accident. It hopes to premiere it in the spring, ideally around prom or graduation to have the biggest impact on the decisions teens make when it comes to alcohol, drugs and driving.

The foundation also plans to implement a driver training and simulator project that will help provide good habits and critical thinking for teen drivers. A similar program has been established in Georgia that has helped reduce the number of major accidents caused by teenage drivers. The foundation hopes to have the project in place for the beginning of the 2011 school year.

After talking with numerous teenagers about what they want to see in the community, the foundation decided to work toward creating a drug- and alcohol-free club where they could host bands and other entertainment events. The foundation's goal is to have it open within five years, White said.

"It all takes time and it all takes energy, but we have had some amazing community commitment," she said. "I think that the goals of the foundation are pretty well aligned with where the community is right now. I think our awareness level is pretty high."

The community is welcome to support or contribute to the foundation in any way it can, White said. They have filed as a nonprofit corporation and have set up a Web site, www.taylorwhite.org.

"If you have a tragedy, Juneau really knows how to come in and support its community members so you know you're not doing this alone," White said. "Another reason that we wanted the foundation to form is so we would have a place for all of that emotion and resources to go so that something good can come out of it for the community."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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