Students remember Kelsey Durkin nine years after her death

The Washington and Lee community joined the Promise Committee for the annual tree lighting in her honor

Sophie Kidd

Students and professors gathered in the quad on December 3 for a tree lighting on the nine-year anniversary of Kelsey Durkin’s death.  

Durkin, ’14, was leaving a party in the country when the driver lost control of the car and crashed in the early hours of December 3, 2013. The driver, Nicholas Hansel, ’14, was intoxicated at the time, injuring 10 other students and killing Durkin.

Hansel pled guilty at Rockbridge County Court to one count of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, two counts of maiming while under the influence and one count of driving under the influence. Under a plea deal, he was able to serve three years in the Rockbridge Regional Jail rather than a state penitentiary.

This year, the former jail superintendent John Marshall Higgins was sentenced to more than four years in prison for taking bribes from Hansel’s family in return for preferential treatment, such as unsupervised visits, access to phones and computers and trips to a nearby farm.

“This kid killed my daughter, and he’s being treated like a special person at a prison? Give me a break,” Kelsey’s father Jay Durkin said in a comment to The Roanoke Times.

Two hours after the fatal crash, Hansel had a BAC of .16 percent, which is nearly twice the legal limit.

There have been no students on campus who were present for Durkin’s death since 2017, but the Promise Committee has continued to educate current students about drinking and driving while reminding them about the devastating impact Durkin’s death had on the school.

“Events like the Tree Lighting and Promise Week, which will be held early second semester, are our way to connect with students and educate them both about the accident, and about why the Promise Committee exists,” co-president of the committee, Rett Daugbjerg, ’22, said. 

“At the end of the day, the Promise Committee serves to remember Kelsey and her impact on the community, as well as prevent an accident like that one from ever happening again.”

 Daugbjerg and Peyton Jeter, ’22, worked with Dean Sydney Evans, Manager of Student Affairs Operations Lynn Fitch and Public safety to organize this year’s annual tree lighting. The event takes place in the quad by a statue donated by Durkin’s parents.

Peyton and I, along with the rest of the committee, tried to focus a lot on outreach this year to get as many people as possible to come out,” Daugbjerg said. “We couldn’t host the event last year because students were off campus, so we knew it would be an important year for the event.”

Students sipped on hot chocolate and enjoyed cookies as they listened to Daugbjerg, Jeter and Evans speak before observing a moment of silence in Durkin’s memory.

“I was really glad to see such a great turnout by the student body,” Hannah O’Connor, ’22, said. “I think it is wonderful that so many students can come together to remember a fellow student and reflect on the accident to make sure that it never happens again at our school.”

Since Durkin’s death, the school has worked with students to decrease the secrecy of drinking off campus by providing more resources to prevent future accidents.

“I think the biggest thing is just knowing that we have so many resources on campus to avoid making a mistake behind the wheel,” Daubjerg said. “Use Traveller, call Traveller Dispatch, call a friend in the library. It’s difficult for us to relate to and understand because we weren’t on campus, but the accident in 2013 tremendously affected the entire W&L community and should not be forgotten.”