TRAGEDY BEFALLS HERMANN AND RHINELAND - Two local young people die in a head-on collision

by Jeff Noedel

Two Hermann-area young people were killed in a head-on collision on Hwy. 100 East, near the top of "Etlah Hill" between the Etlah Hwy. B and the Grant School Rd.

Dead are Austin Lee Van Booven, 21, of Rhineland and Amanda Lee Witthaus, 27, of Hermann.  They were each the drivers; there were no passengers in either car.

The accident was dispatched by Franklin County 911 at about 4:40 p.m. today.

According to an official report by the Mo. State Highway Patrol, Witthaus' black 2011 Hyundai was traveling westbound (toward Hermann) on Hwy. 100, having just come over the crest of the hill.  Van Booven's 2005 silver Chevy Malibu was going eastbound (toward New Haven).  The Patrol concluded Van Booven's car crossed the center line; the vehicles hit fully head-on.

Both young people were pronounced dead on the scene by New Haven Ambulance personnel.

The Van Booven family came to the accident scene.

The scene was worked by three State Troopers, one Franklin County deputy, New Haven EMS, and the New Haven-Berger Fire Protection District.

Firemen closed Hwy. 100 and rush hour traffic in both directions was diverted over the narrow Grant School Rd.  The highway remained closed until about 8:00 p.m.

The shocking accident is sure to shake the Hermann and Rhineland communities to their foundations as both young people were very popular, from large Hermann-area families.

On a Facebook page tonight, Karen Hart wrote, "Heavy hearted tonight.  God be with our town."

Geri Howe wrote, "Today GOD has tested our faith again with our community asking why repeatedly. He has called Austin and Amanda home to sit at his side leaving us here to question his love for us and why he causes us such pain. Please keep the Van Booven and Witthaus families in your prayers.

Seth Witthaus wrote, "I'm tired and numb and can't process all the emotion I'm feeling..."

Wyatt Schaefer wrote, "I guess they meant it when they said the good die young."

News of the accident began to spread through Rhineland and Hermann in the 5:00 o'clock hour tonight.  By 6:00 p.m., the identities of the two accident victims had spread through Hermann's highly efficient grapevine.

Two members of the Gasconade County R-1 School Board have relatives in the accident.  Superintendent Dr. Chris Neale told CNL at noon today that tonight's school board agenda was very busy.  But when the group convened at 7:00 p.m., they conducted two official items that could not be postponed, and the rest of the school board meeting was canceled.

Van Booven was a talented, popular, competitive high school athlete who graduated HHS in 2010.  Tonight many Hermannites were at an HHS home basketball game.  Principal Gary Leimkuehler opened the high school auditorium, in case any students felt the need to escape the gymnasium and be in a place for quiet reflection, prayer, and grieving.  Outside the high school, some people were hugging and crying.


Even though he graduated almost three years ago, Van Booven was still a virtual icon of Hermann High School.  Students and staff will struggle with the loss Wednesday, reminiscent of the incredible pain visited on the high school from three fatal car wrecks of two students and one recent graduate last school year.  At the scene of tonight's tragedy, the first sign of a Hermann connection was the fact that Van Booven was wearing a Bearcats sweatshirt, a firefighter told CNL.

The pain in Hermann will be doubled this week, as the town also mourns Witthaus, who was a smart young woman with a bright future.  She graduated Southeast Missouri State University in 2008 with a degree in Administrative Systems Management.  She was on the University's Dean's List.  She had just become engaged to be marriedShe, too, was a Bearcat, a graduate of HHS.

For some, the pain will feel tripled, since many people were friends with both of the outgoing young people, for there are many ways the two large families are linked.  Tonight, the two families in two counties are linked in unimaginable grief.


CNL will publish few photos, ever, from tonight's tragedy.  No photos from up-close.  It is CNL's longstanding policy to minimize photos of accident scenes where people died at the accident scene.  This policy is meant to minimize additional suffering of loved ones, and to protect the dignity of the deceased.

Importance to me: 


While I have the utmost

While I have the utmost sympathy for families of these two kids, can I ask what caused the tragedy?

Was it a cell phone?

No evidence it was cell related

Hello Neil.  The role of cell phones and texting is a very real variable in many accidents in America, as we all know.  But there seem to be other possible causes in this case.  It appears evidence was not conclusive enough for the experts at the State Patrol to put into the official report.  My experience in reading these reports (and many people read those reports) is that if the Patrol experts feel evidence is strong enough as to a cause, it goes in the report.  Anything else is speculation.  One thing I don't see in the Patrol crash reports is speculation.

In other words, I personally think (and you might disagree) that "cause unknown" is going to have to suffice in this case, and leave it at that.  That's just my opinion.  The Patrol decided one car was on the other side of the line, but is not offering a reason why.  If they felt they knew, I know they are not bashful to put it in writing.

I don't know that this is the time to deal with cause, especially if the Patrol report doesn't speak clearly on cause.  (Not sure it's appropriate discussion even if the patrol report was conclusive on cause!)

I do worry that these accountability discussions (and this frequently happens) are possibly inappropriate during the period of mourning.  Accidents happen.  One-hundred percent of us make mistakes in judgment regularly, and there is also the role of bad luck.  Mechanical failure.  Wildlife in the road.  Sun in one's eyes.  Sneezing.  Whatever.

I guess these conversations happen at the bakery and the breakfast diner, but maybe are not suited for the Internet, where loved ones have to deal with it.

Cause is probably not going to be supplied here.  The emphasis, I suggest, should be on our fellow humans in pain, and enveloping them with love and support so they can heal.  And I think we ought to celebrate these two lives, short as they were.

It's hard to do either of those things when we fixate on cause.  But that's just my opinion, which is no better than anyone else's.

Very well said Jeff!

I would like to commend your words of wisdom Jeff and for your eloquent and incredibly community supported coverage of this tragedy.  The reporting and hearfelt outpouring of love and prayers in our community are represented here without animosity of any kind and with compassion and understanding.  I am very proud to be a subscriber to County News Live as it is the most reputable and respectable online paper that reaches us all and continues to do it with dignity.  The loss we are all feeling is eased in your coverage of the words of others that have been shared and I certainly believe that the way our communities come together is very well displayed in this outlet.  I thank you from the Englert household in Rhineland for your dedication to our communities and the integrity with which you report it.  

The kindness of Southern Montgomery County

Thanks Sherry.  You're a darn good writer, yourself.

Rhineland is very important to CNL, and thus me.  I have had enormous support from Rhineland from the beginning, all the way back to 2008.  You were one of the first, and have stayed behind my effort all along.  I love the tight family fabric and the can-do spirit of Rhineland, the town that moved itself up a hill.  The finest little ballpark in Mid Missouri.  And the best pies (Trailside).  Dollar Burger Night is one of the highlights of my week.

And all the special, incredible things Larry and Becky Hagedorn have quietly, humbly done for CNL.  Larry and Becky are probably at least 20 percent responsible for CNL still standing today.  And then there's the great respect I've been shown by your County Commission in general, and your Commissioner John Noltensmeyer in particular.

And, of course, you can't think about Rhineland without thinking Peoples Savings Bank.  They -- along with a handful of Hermann's best businesses that have stayed with us as advertisers -- are responsible for giving me the ad support and moral support I've needed to keep CNL alive.

I could go on and on.  Simply put, my feelings for my friends in Southern Montgomery County, including sweet Brenda Jean Van Booven, drive me forward to keep CNL going past its 5th anniversary, while waiting and hoping for more advertising from businesses that Patti Ryan and I are eager and able to help.

Well Said............

Well said Jeff.

Grieving Parents, Families and Friends:

Every time this community loses another child- all grieving mothers and fathers and family and friends feel these losses with a deep sense of agony that is difficult to explain.  We lost Dusty over 13 years ago but my heart and my prayers go out to anyone who is going through such a horrible unfathomable issue.  I reach out to other parents and they reach out to me and we muddle through the bad days and the good days and the days that are to come will be so very difficult.  Never ever let your kids leave your house without an I love you- They are never too big to hear it or feel it... It doesn't matter what age a child is when you lose them the pain of a parent burying their child is so very very deeply buried inside and stays there.  I am very fortunate to live in this community in that we all come out of the woodwork to grieve with and for these families and they know they are prayed for and cared about by people that do not even know them.  Austin played washers at Trailside on Tuesday nights, my husband went down there to play tonight and they all decided not to play tonight and all came home or went home with very heavy hearts.  In the days to come pray for the Van Booven families and Witthaus families as they get through the next two weeks and then the months to follow.  It is important to reach out to these families because having gone through it myself it is very difficult for grieving parents to reach out to others. Heaven called two of our children home tonight-- please pray for them and their grieving families.  For the families who have gone through this same tragedy it comes back up as if it were yesterday in slow motion each and every time it happens.  We are fortunate to have such a close knit community that takes care of each other and I am proud to be a very big part of it.