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Crash 40 years ago killed eight in North Dakota
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Crash 40 years ago killed eight in North Dakota

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BELCOURT (AP) - Irene Ost thinks about her sisters almost every day.

She thinks about Mary Lue, who at 14, played mostly with her younger siblings, and Anita, 18, who kept to herself reading books at home but on weekends was always with friends.

She thinks about Mary Lue riding horses and Anita's beautiful smile.

"To me, that is a part of them that I can hold onto yet," she said.

Ost wonders what they'd be like if they were alive today, 40 years after the crash.

Anita and Mary Lue Greenshields died in a car accident three miles west of Jamestown on Sept. 1, 1968. The two-car crash claimed the lives of eight that night, all teenagers, in what the State Historical Society calls the worst car accident in North Dakota history. The eight fatalities are the most in a motor vehicle crash in North Dakota, according to state Highway Patrol records dating back to 1958.

Ost, her sisters, Anita's boyfriend Ronald Linstaedt and his Valley City State College (now Valley City State University) roommate Robert Hendrix attended a farewell party for a friend in the North Dakota town of Cleveland on the night of Aug. 31. The party - which started with sandwiches and Kool-Aid - ended with as many as seven cases of beer, according to reports in The Jamestown Sun after the crash.

Few people attended, Ost said, so the group left, hungry for hamburgers. The five said goodbye around 11 p.m. and hopped in a car headed for Jamestown on Interstate 94.

The car, a 1965 Mustang driven by Hendrix, collided head on with the 1964 Ford Sedan driven by Earl Williams of Alfred, around 12:30 a.m. Williams, 16, who was driving eastbound in the westbound lane, and his passengers Michael Erdman, 18, Barbara Wold, 16, and Debra Boelke, 17, were killed.

Five of the eight were pronounced dead at the scene. Three died at Jamestown Hospital a few hours later.

Ost remembers nothing of the crash or what happened after.

Leon Okerlund does.

Okerlund, known better as Okie, was working that night at the Jamestown Police Department when he got the page - ambulance needed for possible fatal.

Okerlund, who has 40 years of law enforcement experience, said the accident is the worst he's ever seen.

In 1968, he was 23 years old and a Jamestown Police Department rookie - nine months on the force.

He remembers approaching the accident behind the wheel of a city ambulance which at the time, was a hearse-looking Cadillac.

Some law enforcement officials had already arrived. More would come. Bystanders gathered near the pavement and on the Woodbury overpass.

Parts and debris littered I-94, he said. The hood of Hendrix's Mustang looked like an Irish stew of alternator, radiator, carburetor and fender parts. One motor catapulted more than 300 feet from the vehicle, Okerlund said.

Some of the teenagers were thrown too. Others were trapped.

He couldn't see faces through the early morning dark. It didn't matter.

Had there been daylight, some he may have recognized. He'd gone to school with some, refereed and coached for others.

Just get them help, Okerlund thought.

Inquiry reports from the Highway Patrol said alcohol and excessive speeds contributed to the crash.

Ost sat in the back of the Mustang, behind the passenger seat in a pocket relatively untouched by the impact.

Okerlund said he saw her on a stretcher beneath a blanket. When she moved, he knew one would live.

"I just thought God, I hope there's one alive," he said.

After the accident, Okerlund said he got meaner or at least practiced tough love. He'd pull drivers over for speeding, drinking and driving or other traffic violations and wouldn't listen to excuses.

"We had the funeral home filled and we didn't want to do this again," he said.

The accident still bothers him. For years, it'd wake him up at night.

Don't believe people who tell you these accidents don't affect people, Okerlund said.

"Trust me it bothers you. It bothers you a lot," he said.

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Ost woke up in her hospital bed a few days later, asking for Anita. Anita lived for a few hours after the accident, but died around 3 a.m. Mary Lue died at the scene.

Subconsciously, Ost said, she knew they were dead.

Ost was treated at Jamestown Hospital and later in Fargo for a broken jaw and broken bones throughout her face. Doctors sent her home with a wired jaw.

Scars remain on her nose and beneath her left eye, but now they look like wrinkles, she said.

Her sister, Gloria Jones from Jamestown, remembers the morning after the crash.

In the twilight hours of a Saturday morning, the Greenshields' family dynamic changed. Anita, Mary Lue and Irene, the three oldest girls, had always been in charge of helping with cleaning, cooking and caring for the seven younger siblings.

Gloria, then 8, awoke to her older sister Wilma, then 11, shaking her foot.

Get up, Anita and Mary Lue were killed in an accident. Irene is in the hospital. We have to clean the house, Gloria remembers her sister saying.

Gloria said she cried beneath her blanket, but only for a minute.

Company was coming.

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Wade Williams remembers the night, too.

He remembers sitting at the window with his brother Mark, then 14, willing the cars on the street to steer toward the driveway.

"Please turn in, turn in," he remembers thinking, hoping one would be his brother Earl.

Earl, who liked motorcycles, hunting and wrestling, also helped on the family farm, Wade said.

At about 7 years old, Wade said he doesn't remember much, but he does recall his parents telling him the news.

"I can't remember their words, just know that there was a lot of emotion," Wade said.

Since then, he's kept newspaper clippings, even read them about twice a month, but as for further details, Wade isn't sure he wants to know.

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Agnes Greenshields does.

It's been 40 years and she's ready, she said.

But she's not angry. She never was. She just wants to know answers

The mother of Anita, Irene and Mary Lue, Agnes wants to see photos, files and records of the accident.

Someday she will, she said.

Forty years have passed, but she remembers answering the 4 a.m. knock on the door. The priest said he had bad news and asked her to fetch her husband.

Irene was still living and that made her stronger, she said.

She had seven other children at home and one on the way.

"Well, hey, I've got a baby coming. I can't quit now," she remembers thinking.

And when that wasn't enough, she had her faith too. God didn't cause the accident, Agnes said, he allowed it to happen.

"I know that he probably had a place for them in heaven," she said.

The family still remembers Anita and Mary Lue around the anniversary of the accident, each in his or her own way. On the 25th anniversary, the family had a memorial Mass in remembrance, Ost said.

"I can't say that a Labor Day goes by that you don't think about it or talk with family," Gloria said.

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Ost may never know what truly happened that night. Rumors circulated for years. But that's OK.

She's forgiven.

Ost said she's never talked to the families of other victims, not that she couldn't or didn't want to, she'd just never been asked.

She's talked about the accident publicly, in class to her students. Now a math teacher at Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, she's probably told the story for more than 25 years.

They need to know, she said, so the same thing doesn't happen to them.

For now, Ost will continue sharing the story with her students. She and Gloria also have plans to create a slide show to present to students before school events like homecoming and prom, in part as a warning and in part to remember.

"All that part of history is going to be lost," she said.

Students also need to know about loving their families, and how important it is to shower them with affection.

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