Police are unsure why the driver crossed centerline
A Kelso woman died Friday night, Jan. 4, after her car collided head-on with a sport utility vehicle on Highway 26 east of Sandy.
Around 7:35 p.m., a Ford Focus driven by 34-year-old Gretchen Lee Kahnert was headed west on Highway 26 near McCabe Road, when, for an unknown reason, it crossed the centerline into the right eastbound lane.
Kahnert's Focus immediately struck a Hyundai Tucson SUV driven by Rhododendron resident David M. Trujillo, 66.
'David told me it looked like the car that hit them was going to make a left-hand turn off the highway (onto McCabe Road),' said Trujillo's stepson, Rob Standen. 'He took his foot off the gas to create a bit more space, but before he realized they weren't turning, the car straightened out and hit them.'
The Focus came to rest on top of the Hyundai in the eastbound lanes.
'I don't know if I've seen one where the car hit directly and flipped over like that,' said Sandy Deputy Fire Chief Phil Schneider, who responded to the crash. 'In most cases, it's more of a grazing; this was just direct - an instant, millisecond deceleration.'
Schneider described the crash as two cars heading for each other at 55 mph - 110 mph of force - and stopping when they collided.
'Where they hit, that's where they were,' he said. 'They didn't move anywhere.'
Kahnert, the lone occupant of the vehicle and a resident of Kelso Road, was pronounced dead at the scene. She was wearing her seatbelt at the time of the crash.
Trujillo and his wife, 60-year-old Ann Standen-Trujillo, suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries.
'Mom is especially banged up; both of her feet and ankles got crushed,' Standen said of Standen-Trujillo. 'Her left forearm and wrist got crushed. Her right arm was the lucky one; there was a fracture above the elbow, so she won't have to have a cast, but it will be sore a while.'
Trujillo experienced a 'mashed' right ankle, Standen said.
Both were using safety restraints and were protected by the vehicle's airbags.
'If they didn't have airbags, this probably would have been a multiple fatality,' Schneider said.
The crash site was several miles from the recently installed cable barriers, which were installed to prevent collisions like this.
In a stretch of road where only 2 feet separate the eastbound and westbound fast lanes, 'That would have made the difference,' Schneider said.
Personnel from the Oregon State Police, Sandy and Hoodland fire departments, American Medical Response, the Sandy Police Department, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and the Oregon Department of Transportation assisted at the scene. Eastbound lanes of Highway 26 were closed until about 12:30 a.m.
At the time of the collision, Kahnert was driving with a suspended license, a judgment levied as a result of a 2005 driving while under the influence of intoxicants conviction in Gresham.
Oregon State Police troopers from the Portland Area Command office and the Government Camp worksite are continuing to investigate the cause of the crash.
Kahnert's best friend friend of seven years, Jana Templin of Rhododendron, said Kahnert was 'the most beautiful thing' she'd ever seen, and a person with a natural knack for people.
'Anybody who came into the room where she was at instantly fell in love with her,' Templin said. 'She just had that gift.'
Kahnert made a big impression on the people of the mountain villages while working at the Rendezvous Grill and, most recently, the Skyway Bar and Grill, where she was a server and bartender.
'Everyone working with her loved her, my family loved her, and all the customers instantly took to her,' said Skyway co-owner Tracie Baker. 'She just really loved people, and people really loved her.'
Motherhood changed Kahnert's life, Templin said.
'After she gave birth to Noah, she told me that he was the reason she was put on this earth, to be his mother,' Templin said. 'She just loved being a new mom.'
Baker described Kahnert as a smart, outgoing, hard-working, friendly person who 'made a really big impact' on people in her short four months at the Skyway.
'It's a very emotional time,' Baker said. 'Gretchen will be very missed.'
Missed not only by her friends and co-workers but by her 8-month-old son, Noah, her boyfriend, her mother and her grandmother, among many others.
Kahnert's funeral is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 17, in Sandy. A benevolence account has been set up for Kahnert's son.
Donations to the Noah Ryan Hunter fund may be made at any Washington Mutual bank branch.
Life will never be the same for the Trujillos, either.
Standen, who owns the Altitude hair salon in Welches, says his stepfather has a 'short road' to recovery, but his mother has a 'long road.'
The couple still is receiving treatment in the hospital.
It's hard to tell how they're doing emotionally, Standen said, due to the medications involved right now.
'But they're both optimistic people,' Standen said.
The tragedy has shown Standen and his parents just how close-knit the mountain community really is.
'I didn't realize how ingrained we were in it until this,' he said. 'Everyone's aware of what happened and is offering condolences.'
It's a sober beginning to a year that first responders had hoped would be less deadly than the one before.
Schneider advises drivers to be cautious of the grooves in the road on Highway 26 when it rains.
'Heavy rains causes puddles in the roadway,' he said.
'You gotta be careful of hydroplaning. People are still setting their cruise controls. They hit the water, and it takes them right off the road.'