Fatal car crash stuns Hampton students, faculty

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   April Sims, a student at Hampton High School and member of the girls basketball team, was spending the night with a friend Wednesday when she learned that her mother and younger brothers had been in an automobile accident.
   "It was a real bad situation. They got hold of April last night and said, 'Your momma has been in an accident.' So she goes to the hospital with her friend and they were told, 'She's doing OK. We've just got some tests we need to run.' Then she died later. So, you can imagine, the little girl is devastated," a teacher at the high school said Thursday.
   According to Elizabethton Police Chief Roger Deal, officers were dispatched to a motor vehicle collision on West Elk Avenue near Sycamore Shoals Hospital at approximately 8:59 p.m.
   "Upon investigation, officers determined that Joshua D. Whitehead, 24, 227 Centerview Drive was operating a 1994 Jeep Cherokee which was traveling northbound on U.S. Highway 321. The Jeep Cherokee left the northbound traffic lane, crossed the center turning lane and struck a 1992 Oldsmobile Silhouette van which was traveling southbound," Chief Deal said.
   Teresa A. Sims, 35, 111 Joe Wilson Road, died as a result of the crash. Hutch Sims, 4, was airlifted by Wings Air Rescue to Johnson City Medical Center. He suffered two broken legs and a serious head injury, according to friends of the family. Michael Sims, 11, was transported to Sycamore Shoals Hospital with serious injuries. Condition reports were not being released early today.
   According to Chief Deal, Whitehead had slurred speech, dilated pupils and was slow to respond to questions asked by Carter County Emergency Medical Service personnel. He was transported to Sycamore Shoals Hospital. Officers found one white tablet with the marking "Mylan A-1" in the driver's seat of the Jeep and one orange tablet with the marking "1-2" in the driver's floorboard.
   At approximately 12:15 a.m., Whitehead was told he was under arrest for three counts of aggravated assault with reckless conduct of a motor vehicle. He was asked to submit to a chemical test to determine whether there was any alcohol or drug content of the blood. Whitehead first signed the implied consent form, then later marked out his name, refusing to take the test, Deal said.
   However, when a fatality is involved the officer can order the chemical test, according to state law. A blood specimen was drawn and sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation laboratory for analysis.
   Whitehead was released from Carter County Jail shortly before 1 p.m. Thursday on $15,000 appearance bond, with a court hearing set Sept. 6.
   "Charges haven't been upgraded at this time but I feel sure that they will be and there'll probably be more charges," Chief Deal said.
   It was the worst accident the police chief said he had seen in recent months. "The van is unrecognizable," he said.
   Deal did not know Thursday whether speed was a factor in the crash, but said, "I've never seen a car damaged that bad that there wasn't speed."
   A teacher at Hampton High said, "It's just a tragedy. Our whole school has been affected, especially the girls who play ball with April."
   Carter County Superintendent of Schools Dallas Williams said he had spoken with Principal Danny McClain who indicated that Mrs. Sims "was the caretaker" of the children ... and that April was probably going to have to miss some school to help take care of them.
   "Mr. McClain indicated that one of the teachers was going to go over and check on everybody and that they were going to do everything that they can there at the school to support. I'm sure that the classmates and the kids that surround April will be a big support factor, as well as the school and the faculty and the administration," Williams said.
   Girls basketball coach Leslie Campbell said April's fellow team members were very upset.
   "All of them sat around today. None of them went to second period. They all sat around and talked with each other, so maybe that helped a little bit for them." During their lunch breaks, several teachers visited the family at the medical center, Campbell said.
   The school has counseling services available to students, and according to Principal McClain, "There's quite a few having a tough time with it. We also have had quite a few go in and talk to the basketball coach."
   Williams said, "I know it's a real tragedy when you lose a student. When a student loses their mother, I guess that requires the same kind of counseling."
   Though many students and teachers were anxious to help the family, Principal McClain said everyone was waiting to hear from the family to find out what they could do.
   "I'm not sure that there is anything you can do to help at this time other than to just pray for them and have our thoughts with them," he said.
   A fund was being set up at the school to assist the family. To donate, send a check or money order made out to the April Sims Family, and mailed in care of Hampton High School, 766 First Avenue, Hampton, TN 37658.