By Rachel Kytonen
They knew it was coming. They hoped and prayed it wouldn’t. But they knew it would. And it did.
As the squad cars pulled into their driveway around noon on April 25, 2010, and the officers walked up to their door, the family of Kelsee Blackledge knew their lives would never be the same.
Kelsee, 15, was one of six people killed in a two-car collision around 2:40 a.m. on April 25 on Hwy. 95, just west of the Cambridge Rum River Bridge. Kelsee, and the three other passengers in the vehicle, Tres Kendryna-Whitefeather, Travis Buchan, and Travis “Griz” Gryczkowski, all of Cambridge, were instantly killed. The lone survivor of the crash was their driver, SeBrina Schumacher.
The driver and passenger of the other vehicle, Josh Netzel of Sandstone, and Aaron Neuschwander, of Mora, were also instantly killed.
The Blackledge family still feels pain and heartache over the loss of their daughter, sister and best friend.
“We know she’s okay and she’s happier, and we all still talk to her, but she doesn’t answer back,” said Mike Blackledge, Kelsee’s father, from their rural Isanti home on Monday. “Not being able to touch her, and kiss and hug her, has been the hardest part.”
With the help of family and friends, a beautiful pond and water garden named “Kelsee’s Garden,” graces the Blackledge’s backyard. The family said it serves as memorial to Kelsee, and has become a place for the family to gather and share stories and memories.
“We’ve lived in this home since 1995, and we moved here when Kelsee was just a baby,” said Kelsee’s mother, Tammy, “Mike and I also got married here in our backyard.”
“Everyone who helped with the Garden has some sort of piece in it,” Mike added. “Everyone part of that Garden, someone has touched.”
Kailee, who is two-years older than Kelsee, said she had a great sister.
“She did everything for me,” Kailee said. “We were always with each other and we were best friends. Three weeks before the accident we were sitting in the school parking lot, and Kelsee said she had something to tell me, but was scared. She wrote it down instead and wrote, ‘you’re my best friend.’ That was the first time she ever said that to me.”
Tammy feels the family has grown stronger this past year.
“We’ve gotten through the past year because of each other,” Tammy said. “There are days we feel we can’t get through, but we’ve gotten to the point where we can talk about Kelsee’s memories and share stories about her.”
Dealing with grief isn’t easy, and the Blackledge family has gotten through it the best they could.
“We were told we would lose a lot of friends because they won’t know how to act around us, but this showed us how great of friends we do have in our lives,” Tammy said. “We still take things day-by-day. Before it was minute-by-minute. But if we are feeling down, we don’t hide it, and we talk to each other.”
One year later, with the exception of a few items the family has let close friends and family have for a keepsake, Kelsee’s room has stayed exactly the same.
“It’s hard to open her bedroom door and not see her,” Mike said.
“I know it’s one-year later, but we still don’t feel like it’s real,” Tammy added.
Kelsee’s sense of humor is a personality trait the family really misses.
“Even if you were in the most crappy mood, Kelsee could always turn it around,” Tammy said. “She would say a joke, or make you laugh. Her laugh was contagious and she had the most beautiful smile. I can’t believe we haven’t seen it for a year. After she died, it was amazing how many people came up to us and told us how she cared so much for other people.”
Kelsee enjoyed playing soccer, but also did some volunteer work with churches and other community organizations.
Kailee misses the sister-to-sister conversations they used to have.
“I’d come home and she’s always be sitting in the living room watching T.V.,” Kailee said. “Or she’d clean my room for me sleep in my bed because I had the comfier bed. If I was having problems with our parents or boys, I would talk to her about what I was feeling. Kelsee was the most important person in my life.”
April 25, 2010
Kelsee had told her family she would be hanging out and staying with SeBrina Schumacher the night of April 24, 2010.
Kailee had gone to bed that night, and woke up around 8 a.m., but then went back to bed. Her phone rang around 8:30 or 9 a.m. and one of their friends told her Kelsee had been in an accident, and may have been killed.
“I ran out and told my mom, and then drove over to SeBrina’s to see if her car was there,” Kailee said.
Tammy said Mike was at work at the time.
“My first instinct was to run to Kelsee’s room, and then I remembered she wouldn’t be there,” Tammy said. “I tried calling her, and her phone was ringing, but no one was answering. I couldn’t get any straight answers from anyone.”
The family kept calling the State Patrol, but they would only tell them their daughter had been in an accident.
“We really couldn’t get any straight answers from anyone, and then we heard that one person survived and it was a girl but … ” Tammy said.
“It was the worst day of my life,” Kailee said.
The Blackledge family said they knew by the time the officers arrived on April 25 that their daughter had been killed in the crash. Their home was the last home the officers went to that morning.
“We knew, but after the officers came and told us …. We knew it was real,” Tammy said.
Kailee said Kelsee and the others had been hanging out at one of the kids’ home in Cambridge when they decided to head to McDonalds to get something to eat. After that, they were on their way to bring Travis Gryczkowski home when the accident happened.
“They almost made it,” Kailee said.
As friends and family learned of Kelsee’s death, they immediately came over.
“Within hours, our home was filled with people offering support and bringing food,” Tammy said. “I don’t think we had an empty house for weeks after that.”
Mike said it was really their friends who got them through the past year.
“Our friends really got us through this, and the amount of friends we learned we had,” Mike said. They really put their lives on hold to make sure we were okay. It was overwhelming.”
‘Don’t Drink and Drive’
Tammy said the accident will forever serve as a reminder that you should never “drink and drive.” After the investigation was completed, SeBrina was cleared of any wrong-doing, except for violating a provision of the Minnesota Graduated Driver License Law. The investigation determined that Josh Netzel had an alcohol level three times the legal limit at the time of the crash.
“Be safe, and be a friend to someone,” Tammy said. “Don’t let anyone drink and drive. And always wear your seat belt. We don’t know if wearing a seat belt would have made a difference in Kelsee’s case, but please remember to wear your seat belt.”
Tammy said her husband used to not always wear his seat belt, but now puts it on every time he gets in the car.
“People don’t think something like this can happen to them, but it does,” Mike said.
The Blackledge family also said they don’t blame SeBrina for the accident.
“Besides Kailee, SeBrina and Kelsee were best friends,” Tammy said. “We need to support SeBrina and don’t blame her. Teenagers are going to be teenagers, and sometimes they do things behind their parent’s backs. She wasn’t trying to break the law. She thought she could drive at that time since she had Griz in the car, and he was 21. It was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
On the one-year anniversary of Kelsee’s death, the Blackledge family said they have seen signs the past year reminding them Kelsee is still with them as their “angel.”
“We saw our first butterfly of the season today,” Tammy said.
Kailee said she still knows her sister is pulling pranks on her.
“One of my signs is with my keys,” Kailee said. “I have something on my keys in honor of all of them—Kelsee, Griz, Tres, and Travis—and then all of a sudden something pulls on my keys without anything being there. It’s happened two or three times where the keys just get yanked out my hand. I know it’s Kelsee’s way of still messing with me.”
Kailee said on Monday she want up to the crash site, and brought balloons.
“It has been a hard day for me, but I have my friend’s here,” Kailee said. “Even if they don’t say anything, I know they are here.”
And as Mike, Tammy and Kailee were standing outside Monday afternoon by Kelsee’s Garden, Mike looked up in the sky.
“See that rainbow around the sun,” he said. “That’s just another sign that Kelsee is still with us, and watching over us.”
“We miss her every second of everyday. Please don’t take anything for granted,” added Tammy.
The following letter was submitted by Mike, Tammy and Kailee Blackledge, who reflect on the past year. Their daughter and sister, Kelsee Blackledge, was tragically killed in a car crash on April 25, 2010.
One Year As Our Angel
4.25.10 – 4.25.11
Where to begin…
Heartache, loneliness, lost, hollow, anger; these are only a few of the emotions our family has been experiencing since Kelsee was taken from us a year ago. Such a senseless way to be taken. How can someone have such little respect for life to make a choice that took five peoples lives, not including his own.
Let me tell you a little of what our family has gone through this past year.
Our daughter Kailee has been trying to live day by day without not only her only sibling, but also her best friend. All the plans they were making were all taken away in one split second. Kailee had plans the night of the accident with Kelsee, but then Kelsee decided to hang out with some of her friends instead. Kailee knows it wasn’t her fault but as her big sister, she felt it was her obligation to protect her and she couldn’t do that for her that night. Kailee’s passion now is to make her sister proud. She is planning to attend Anoka Ramsey to pursue her nursing degree. This is what Kelsee wanted to do. She is also a huge advocate against drinking and driving.
As for Kelsee’s dad and me, we are just trying to get through each day without seeing her beautiful smile, hearing her contagious laugh and being able to hug her. This is honestly the hardest thing. I describe her loss as having a part of our insides ripped out with no way to fill it. We all lost a part of us that will be gone forever. Missing so many milestones like her birthday, teaching her to drive, all the holidays without her and her big sister’s graduation. Her dad won’t be able to walk her down the aisle. She won’t be able to give us grandchildren someday.
This time of year is bringing everything fresh to the surface. Each time I walk outside, I picture the day the police came to my door telling me the unthinkable. Every time I see a white Grand Am I feel sick to my stomach. I see an accident and just pray it’s nobody I know. I see people drinking and getting behind the wheel and I want to tackle them.
We do feel Kelsee is with us and watching over us. She is keeping us strong and life will never be normal without her, but we are sticking together and trying to make it through. This is what she would have wanted. Thank you to all out family and friends for their continued support and prayers. We honestly could not do this without you.
In honor of Kelsee, please DO NOT drink and drive. There are always other options and don’t think it will never happen to you because we are proof that it can and does. Please don’t put anymore families through what we are going through.
RIP – Kelsee- Griz- Travis- Tres
Mike, Tammy, and Kailee Blackledge