Ryan Dixson Henry must have felt like he was flying.
That’s what his mother, Vicki Brown, holds on to when she thinks about the ATV accident that claimed her son’s life May 24, 2009, in Shelocta.
“He felt free, he was going too fast,” she says.
Now, as they prepare to pass the first Memorial Day weekend since his death, Henry’s mother, grandmother, sister and girlfriend gather in the living room of Brown’s Water Street home to warn other drivers about the dangers of all-terrain vehicles, and to urge caution.
“Our lives are never going to be the same,” says his grandmother, Donna Dixson. ” If anything would come of Ryan’s death, it’s that people would think.”
Henry was 23 years old, a devoted father to his young son, and was planning a future with his girlfriend when he climbed onto an ATV with a teenage girl around 1:25 a.m. May 24. Brown says her son had driven snowmobiles but didn’t know the safety precautions for ATVs. He was riding a racing vehicle not designed to be driven on pavement. Neither he nor his passenger was wearing a helmet.
Henry was driving down Main Street in Shelocta at around 55 mph when he hit a speed bump and lost control, according to Brown. He swerved into a newspaper box, managed to push the girl off the back of the ATV, then plowed into a utility pole.
He was pronounced dead at Indiana Regional Medical Center an hour later; the girl was seriously injured but survived.
“Ryan was totally sober,” his mother says, reflecting on that day. “These are dangerous (vehicles). I felt that Ryan was saying, ‘You have to tell them, dude, these are dangerous.”’
Across the state, 20 people lost their lives in ATV accidents in 2009, according to the records maintained by the Bureau of Forestry. There were 230 accidents last year, and 220 drivers and passengers were injured. In Indiana County, 16 accidents injured 14 people, including one child and several teens. Henry was the lone fatality in the county last year.
State laws require all ATVs to be registered and titled with a license plate. No one under 16 may operate an ATV unless on a parent’s land or in possession of a safety training certificate. And ATVs cannot be used on any street or highway except to cross the road or on roads designated as ATV roads.
Adult drivers do not have to be licensed or complete a safety course, something Brown wants to see change.
“At least watch a video. I think people don’t realize (the danger) because it’s on four wheels. Ryan didn’t know,” she says.
Now, she hopes his story encourages other families to think through safety concerns.
“Open a dialogue. Let’s talk about how, as a family, we have ATVs. Let’s have a plan,” she says.
A number of errors contributed to the accident, according to Brown. Henry was not an experienced driver; he was not wearing a helmet; he had taken a racing quad onto a paved road; he didn’t know the area and wasn’t aware of the speed bumps; and he was going way too fast.
She remembers how her husband, Henry’s stepfather, Kevin Brown, and her daughter, Emily Henry, both woke up in the middle of the night when police knocked on the front door. She remembers being told to sit down when she arrived at the hospital and seeing the coroner walking toward them.
She remembers making funeral arrangements, in a haze, and answering questions about organ donations.
“For being a 23-year-old, he was passionate about organ donation,” she says. “If it wasn’t for those conversations I had with him, I would never have been able to say, ‘OK.”’
And in her mind is the image of Henry’s 5-year-old son, Christian, pounding on his father’s gravestone and begging him to come back.
“He misses his dad. It has affected all of us so much, but most of all this little boy who misses his dad,” she says. “He begged, `Daddy, please, if you’re really good you can ask God and just come back for one day.”’
She wishes she had recorded the boy’s words as a caution to other drivers.
“Watch this before you get on an ATV or drive recklessly,” she says. “A 5-year-old shouldn’t be begging (his dad) to please be nice to God so he can come for a visit.”
Shawn Houck of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s District 10 headquarters in White Township says ATV accidents are all the more “catastrophic” because they generally involve teenagers or young adults.
“There’s a lot of injuries, a lot of severe injuries,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount of illegal activity with them driving on highways or traffic routes.”
According to Houck, riders try to cross limited-access highways, such as Route 119; once an ATV stalled in the middle of the road.
“They key thing is, No. 1, make sure the equipment you’re riding is safe,” he says.
Riders should check things such as lights and brakes, and even those who aren’t required should take a safety course.
“The key thing is knowing the limitations of your vehicle,” Houck says. “Putting a small person on a large vehicle can have catastrophic results.”
He reminds riders to wear safety gear such as a helmet, boots, gloves and safety glasses, and to wear bright clothing to make themselves more visible.
“If they’re riding alone, let someone know where they’re riding and what time they might be back. Be familiar with the area you’re riding at.”
Henry’s loved ones remember him as a young man who was dedicated to his family, was “the biggest Steeler fan ever” and who was always ready for a pork chop dinner at home.
The night he died he had come over for supper with his mother. As he was leaving “he gave me the biggest hug and he looked at me with those piercing blue eyes and said, `I’m so glad you’re my mom,”’ Brown remembers through her tears.
He loved tattoos and made his mother promise to get one her next birthday, which she did in his memory.
“Ryan had a very big heart,” his grandmother says.
“Even if you were his worst enemy and you needed something, he’d do it,” says Mikayla James, his girlfriend.
Stories came out at his funeral, Brown recalls. People she didn’t know came forth to speak about how Henry had helped them at one time or another.Through her tears, James says it was the young man’s dedication to his son that first caught her attention. He carried his Bible around with him everywhere he went, she says, and helped her rediscover her own faith.
“He was perfect, everything I could have wanted,” she says. “It’s not worth it, just to have fun for one day, and not come back.”
His grandmother thinks about his “Paul Newman eyes.”
“I don’t think Ryan had any idea how many people loved him,” she says.
“No parent should ever have to pick out a casket for their child. Accidents happen, but sometimes it could be prevented,” Brown says. “I don’t want my son to be just another statistic, and I don’t want another family to have to feel like this.”