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Harty: Looking back at a night of tragedy

[ 0 ] January 18, 2013 |

For years, while driving past the site where former Iowa basketball player Chris Street was killed in an automobile accident, I’d think back to that tragic January night in 1993.

Sometimes I still do, especially these past few days with so much attention given to the 20th anniversary of his death Saturday.

I think about parking my car and climbing up a frozen embankment that led to the accident scene, wondering the whole time what was waiting at the top of the hill.

I think about the mangled mess on the outskirts of Iowa City and how Street’s car was flipped upside down and resting on its hood.

I think about the devastated look on Tom Davis’ face as he walked past me at the accident scene trying to make sense of what had just happened to his star forward.

I think about how cold it was that night and about the emergency vehicles’ flashing lights, each flicker illuminating someone’s shocked face.

I think about how I barely knew Street. It was my first season covering the Iowa men’s basketball team for the Press-Citizen when he was killed Jan. 19, 1993, and yet there I was standing so close to where he died and so soon after it had happened.

The Press-Citizen used to be on North Dodge Street, not even a half mile from where the accident occurred just north of the intersection of Highway 1 and Interstate 80. It only took a matter of minutes for me to arrive on the scene.

I think about how painful and incomprehensible it must have been for Street’s parents upon learning of their son’s sudden death. One second Street was in the midst of a spectacular junior season as an energetic and versatile 6-foot-8 power forward and the next second he was gone forever — a son, a big brother, a friend, a teammate, taken much too soon from those who loved and cherished him.

I also think of Charles Pence, the driver of the snowplow that collided with Street’s car and wonder how he has coped with the tragedy. Pence has declined to comment since the accident except to tell the Press-Citizen that night that Street “just didn’t see me.”

You hope that everybody who was involved with this tragedy has found some peace over the years. You hope that time has helped to soften the devastating blow.

I’ve dealt with my share of death, losing aunts, uncles and grandparents, but not without warning.

Death is bad enough when it happens after a long and fulfilling life. I can only imagine how it must feel when it comes far too soon and without warning.

Time erases your memory in some ways, but certain things last forever.

I remember being told by a Press-Citizen reporter that an automobile accident had just occurred down the road from our office and that a University of Iowa student-athlete might have been involved.

News of this magnitude would go viral in a hurry these days, but things were different 20 years ago. You relied almost exclusively on newspapers, television and radio for your news.

Word of mouth also helped to spread the news, and that was especially true in this case.

Street’s name surfaced after the police scanner revealed the car involved in the accident. I learned after making a few phone calls that Street had just attended a team meal at the Highlander Inn and was pulling onto Highway 1 when the accident occurred. I also learned that his girlfriend was in the passenger seat.

So I knew before heading to the accident scene that this was a tragedy of the worst kind and that it likely involved arguably the most popular player on the Iowa basketball team.

I don’t remember how or when I received official confirmation that Street was dead. But I knew it was true when I headed back to the office. Street had died instantly. His girlfriend survived and was rushed to the hospital.

I remember arriving back at the office and confirming to several of my co-workers that Street was dead. They had been holding out hope that it wasn’t true. It felt terrible having to crush that hope.

One of my co-workers walked down a hallway and slammed both of his hands against the wall. He disappeared for several minutes — I’ve always assumed it was to deal with the realization on his own.

I felt numb the rest of the night while trying to piece together a story for the newspaper. I had gone from writing an advance for a game against Northwestern to writing about the death of somebody who was almost a decade younger than me.

I’ve often wondered where Street’s life would’ve taken him after college. He seemed destined to play in the NBA.

Street used his strength and toughness to bang with the best of them inside. He used his quickness to wreak havoc on the front of Iowa’s press. And he died while having made a school-record 34 consecutive free throws, a record that stands to this day.

He also had been a standout quarterback at Indianola High School.

You don’t do all those things without being physically gifted.

The overwhelming reaction that Street’s death caused also doesn’t happen with someone who is not also gifted in so many other ways.

Hawkeye fans identified with him because he was so much like them — his Midwestern work ethic and his loyalty to the university something they both shared.

A streetlight now sits at the intersection where the accident occurred. I actually call it the Chris Street light because to me, that’s what it represents.

A visible reminder of Chris Street lives in a plaque that hangs in the tunnel of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Now it’s time to hang his retired No. 40 jersey from the rafters as a way of showing that Street always is looking over his former team and serving as inspiration.

His memory will be honored during halftime of Saturday’s game against Wisconsin.

I’m sure I’ll think back to that devastating night 20 years ago while the ceremony is taking place. I’ll think back to the overwhelming sadness and to the suddenness of it.

Life for me became more precious and more fragile the night Chris Street died. That’s why I’ll always feel a connection to him.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7368 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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