Saturday should have been a day of celebration for Sabetha, Kan., after the high school in the town of about 2,600 residents won a state football championship. But tragedy muted the joy.
Carmen Ukele was driving back to Sabetha Saturday night after watching her sons, starting offensive linemen Tanner and Carson, win the Class 3A state football championship in Hutchinson.
On U.S. 75 north of Holton, Kan., in northern Jackson County, on a stretch of road locals complain about for its frequency of accidents, Ukele crashed head-on into another vehicle that was trying to pass traffic on the two-lane highway, according to the Kansas Highway Patrol’s report.
Ukele died, and so did two of her three passengers: Marlee Ukele, the football players’ 11-year-old sister, and their uncle, Stephen Ukele, 62.
The players’ father and Ukele’s husband, Lee Ukele, was seriously injured.
Condolences are pouring into the town and team from neighboring communities and sports opponents alike.
Sabetha head football coach Garrett Michael learned about the accident while riding back with the players on the team bus, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. The school had just won its first state title since 1997, according to the paper.
“The thing that hits me the most is their mom was such a vibrant person, the light in every room,” Michael told the newspaper.
“She just put a smile on your face, and she saw her two boys at the pinnacle of their athletic careers as far as the teenage years. That’s the thing I want them to remember, she was so bubbly and energetic and helpful and proud of them and the team and just loved this journey. She got to see them at their height.”
The crash happened about 8:05 p.m. about a half-mile north of where U.S. 75 intersects with 318th Road, the Highway Patrol reported.
Maria D. Perez-Marquez, 48, of Omaha, Neb., was driving a 2008 Equinox SUV southbound. Ukele was driving north in a 2008 Town & Country minivan.
Perez-Marquez tried to pass another southbound vehicle. When she realized she wasn’t going to make it, she swerved onto the shoulder to avoid Ukele, according to WIBW in Topeka.
But Ukele swerved onto the shoulder, too, to avoid the SUV coming at her, and the two vehicles collided head-on. Both vehicles came to a rest on the shoulder.
Perez-Marquez and her passenger, Rosalao G. Perez, 29, of St. Joseph, were airlifted to the University of Kansas Hospital. So was Lee Ukele. The Capital-Journal reported he was in stable condition on Sunday after undergoing surgeries.
The Highway Patrol described the injuries Perez-Marquez and her passenger sustained as “disabling.”
The Highway Patrol did not know whether Perez-Marquez or Lee Ukele were wearing seat belts but reported everyone else was.
Football coach Michael said both Ukele brothers, who also wrestle, will have lots of support in the days to come.
“They’ve got 50 brothers who are going to be surrounding them in our school. We’re going to give them room and go one day at a time, 10 minutes at a time, whatever they need — we’ll be here to support them,” he told the Capital-Journal.