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Night of 'haunted' fun ends in teen tragedy

By Laura Reston

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CLAY, W.Va. -- Clay County residents on Wednesday struggled to come to terms with a deadly auto accident that took the life of one teen and injured 10 other young people.

Shortly before dawn, a Ford F-150 carrying all 11 struck a guardrail, ripped through the twisted metal and plunged down a streambed along W.Va. 36, just a few miles from Interstate 79.

Seventeen-year-old Kara Conley died 30 minutes after the pickup pinned her to the bank of the creek, said eyewitness Jeremy Mullins.

Conley had been riding with four other teenagers in the bed of the truck. Six others had crammed into the truck's cab. Although some received serious injuries, by Wednesday evening, none of the other passengers had died. Their ages range from 14 to 20.

Residents gathered on street corners and front steps to talk about the crash and remember Conley.

Some heartbroken people hoped -- rather than believed -- that the crash could wake local youth up to the dangers posed by irresponsible behavior. Others said things might never change for Clay, a small town wracked by unemployment and rampant drug use.

"It usually takes a tragedy to wake people up," said Mullins, who was the first person on the scene.

He had heard screams and screeching metal at about 4 a.m. and raced outside his house, where he saw a truck flipped on the bank.

Mullins, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, now serves as a pilot for the West Virginia National Guard and has had trauma training. He immediately called 911 and proceeded to haul the injured young people toward his porch to stabilize their injuries and calm them down after realizing he no longer could help Conley.

He was calm later Wednesday morning as he pointed out skid marks where the truck had torn through the turf on the bank of the creek.

Stacy Murphy got the call from police Wednesday morning. Her son, Isaac Murphy, 18, had been behind the wheel when the truck crashed.

"I was just devastated," Murphy said. "I cried for the families. My heart goes out to them. I know what it's like to lose a child."

Her eldest son, who suffered from cerebral palsy, recently died. Isaac Murphy never knew how to cope with the death, his mother said, and became depressed.

Madison Miller, who attends Clay County High School, remembers Murphy as adventurous and rebellious.

Stacy Murphy said her son is outgoing and a young man who is "very caring and has a soft heart."

She expects her son to face charges. She said he had told her there was alcohol involved in the incident.

Police found marijuana but no alcohol at the scene, West Virginia State Police Trooper Greg Stalnaker said. Police are awaiting a toxicology report to determine if any of the truck's occupants were intoxicated at the time.

Local residents said teenagers often succumb to drugs and alcohol to break the monotony of daily life in Clay County.

"There's nothing here for them," Faye Asbury said as she sat on the steps of the old Clay County Courthouse Wednesday morning. "We have nothing here."

Many local students attended camp or got a summer job during the sultry summer months, Miller said, but Murphy stayed behind.

Early Wednesday, he and friends had gone to have a little fun and visit the "haunted chimneys" around the county's Booger Hole.

According to Appalachian folk tales, the chimneys house ghosts from burnt-out homes. Teenagers have visited the chimneys for years to hunt ghosts and listen for their "screams," Miller said.

"It's a real tragedy," Asbury said. "Kara was a very beautiful little girl."

Residents remember Conley as warm and cheerful.

"She was really bubbly and outgoing," Miller said. "She was always singing popular songs and country. She had one of those cute, girly voices."

Miller said she hopes Conley's death will be a wakeup call for other classmates.

Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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