Jacque Eischens plays the moment over in her head even as she tries to forget.
It was nearly 1 a.m. She was at the front door of one of her dearest friends, knocking with increasing urgency, trying to get Shannon Smith to wake up.
“When she opened the door, I just completely froze for a couple of seconds. It completely hit me: What do I say right now?” she said.
When the words came, they sounded something like this: “I said, ‘Shannon, Kellen was in an accident. We need to go to the hospital.’”
When Mike Smith’s phone rang at 1 a.m., he knew something was wrong.
Smith, principal at Upper Lake Middle School who also serves as the football and girls’ basketball coach for the high school, had been up late after attending an Upper Lake Unified School District board meeting. He thinks he dropped off around 12:15 a.m.
“I was just hitting deep sleep and my phone rang and it was Shannon,” he said. “It was right at 1 a.m. and I was like, ‘This isn’t good.’”
Shannon and Mike Smith’s son, Kellen, was grievously injured after losing control of his 2008 Honda Civic. Kellen, 16, was northbound on Lakeshore Boulevard in Clear Lake just before midnight Aug. 14 when he hit a wooden fence. His two passengers, Desmond Mueller, 16, and a 14-year-old girl were uninjured. But Kellen Smith suffered a skull fracture and a traumatic brain injury.
“I didn’t know exactly what happened,” Mueller, a senior wide receiver and free safety for the Cougars, said of the crash. “At first, I definitely didn’t comprehend what was going on.”
Mueller suffered a small cut on his face, but was otherwise OK. But it became immediately clear that Kellen Smith was not.
“His head was sideways,” he said. There was blood and glass and pieces of the car everywhere. The air bags had not deployed, he said.
The CHP report found Kellen Smith had been driving at an unknown rate of speed and while negotiating a left curve in the roadway, made an unsafe turning movement and lost control. They had not been drinking, Mueller said.
“No,” he said. “I’m against that stuff.”
Searching for information that night, Mike Smith asked the same question.
“I called Desmond after I got out of Ukiah, ‘Desmond, what the heck happened?’” he said. “‘Were you guys drinking?’ He said, ‘No, I swear to God we weren’t.’”
Toxicology reports came back clean, Mike Smith said.
But it was illegal for Kellen Smith to be driving after 11 p.m. and with two underage passengers. The chance of a first-year driver getting into an accident skyrocket when passengers and nighttime are factored in, according to a 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study.
When he got his bearings after the crash, Mueller realized that his friend and teammate was in bad shape.
“I held his head straight,” he said. “He was breathing on his own … very loud breathing, like snoring almost.”
They called 911.
Kellen Smith was taken by helicopter to the Kaiser Vacaville Hospital Trauma Center. Within two hours, he was in surgery to remove a piece of his skull in order to reduce brain swelling.
When the surgeon emerged in the early morning hours of Aug. 15 and briefed Shannon and Mike, he was not gentle.