ASSATEAGUE – Three years ago this week, a joyride on Assateague Island turned tragic when a sport utility
vehicle overturned in the surf, ultimately claiming the lives of its two young
occupants, but the three-year anniversary passed quietly without the filing of
any new civil lawsuits against any of the parties involved.
In the weeks following the tragic accident, there were
hints and veiled threats of legal action against the National Parks Service,
Worcester County Emergency Services and even the OnStar vehicle-equipped
emergency services system for failing to find the overturned vehicle and its
occupants in the hours after it overturned. However, the three-year statute of
limitations on filing a civil suit after an accident passed quietly this week
without any new legal action taken in the case.
There was a civil suit filed in July 2006 by the female
passenger’s family against the male driver of the Hummer SUV. That case was settled
in July of this year although the terms of the settlement have not been
On Feb. 5, 2005, OnStar received a call from a vehicle in
distress somewhere on Assateague Island. Using
the provided latitude and longitude coordinates provided by OnStar and relayed
services, National Parks Services rangers initiated a search of the island,
particularly focusing on the area designated for off-road vehicle use, but the
search proved fruitless and no further effort was made that night to find the
vehicle in distress.
Early the next day, surfers discovered an overturned
Hummer SUV and the body of its driver, Adam Starkey, 25, of Cockeysville,
near it on the beach in the surf in an area where off-road vehicles are not
allowed. A little more than 24 hours later, a state park ranger found the body
of Starkey’s passenger, Jennifer Holly Ashe, 24, also of Cockeysville, about a
half mile south of the Ocean City Inlet and a full five miles from where the
Hummer was discovered.
The State Medical Examiners Office determined the cause of
Starkey’s death to be leg injuries complicated by hypothermia and returned a
similar determination for Ashe, suggesting the outcome might have been
different for the young victims if they had been found earlier. The vehicle was
found east of the dune line in the path of the oncoming tide with its roof
caved in and its doors buckling outward.
Throughout that first night, it was in the path of the
changing tide and was likely submerged at high tide, which could explain why it
was not located immediately. At the time, park rangers said they searched the
island using the longitude and latitude coordinates provided by OnStar and
relayed through county emergency services but were unable to locate the submerged
Parks officials said later they focused their search
efforts on the area designated for off-road vehicle use that first night. It
wasn’t until the next day when surfers discovered the wrecked Hummer and the
body of Starkey that a full-fledged, multi-agency search including boats and
helicopters was initiated.
Three years later, questions remain if the search had been
handled differently from the beginning if the vehicle could have been found and
the victims saved. There appeared from the outset to be some culpability for
all of the participants in the incident, from the initial OnStar call to the
relay of information from county services to the handling of the search by the
Parks Service and hints of pending lawsuits were abound.
Three years later, no such suits, save for the civil
action taken by Ashe’s family against Starkey’s family, ever materialized. It
is important to note the basic fact in the case is that the Hummer was
traveling in an area not designated for off-road use on a dark winter night and
likely at a high rate of speed, given the condition of the massive vehicle and
its final resting place overturned in the surf.