By Bridgett Hernandez
In 2014, a fatal car accident tore a hole in three Whitley County families and left the community reeling. This is the second story in a three part series about the families – what has helped them heal and how they are keeping their loved ones’ memories alive.
What was Savannah Labenz like?
According to her family members, she was a serious athlete, a high-achieving student, a hard worker, a tomboy, a girly girl, fun loving, fearless. A label just couldn’t contain her.
As her mother, Shelly Labenz puts it, Savannah, or “Red” as many called her, was a spitfire.
“Oh, our kid,” Shelly said tenderly. “She was ornery. A little red head. She was just a beautiful, beautiful girl.”
It was a shock when Savannah, 19 years old and so full of life, was killed in a car accident in 2014.
A graduate of Churubusco High School, Savannah was living at home while studying accounting and business management at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Shelly and her husband, Lyle, remember the day of the accident like it was yesterday.
It was Nov. 28, 2014, Black Friday. Shelly and Savannah were wrapping Christmas presents on the living room floor. Savannah had recently started dating Colton Coffelt, and Shelly remembers they were smitten with one another.
The couple was in a hurry to get to a family dinner. Savannah kissed her mom goodbye and told her she loved her before rushing out the door.
The night ended in tragedy when Savannah; her friend, Eric Hoffman, 19; and her boyfriend’s father, Perry “Joe” Coffelt, were killed in a single-car accident. Another friend, Breanna Waugh, 19, the sole survivor, was taken to a hospital for her injuries.
Savannah’s death was a devastating blow to her family and everyone else who loved her.
In the days after Savannah’s death, the Labenz family was consumed by grief, but family members were also overcome with gratitude for the outpouring of love and support that surrounded them.
“It makes you very proud to be a resident of Churubusco because when something tragic happens – like it has with so many families here – the community outpour is just amazing,” Shelly said.
More than 1,000 people attended Savannah’s services. The funeral procession included more than 100 cars, two school buses and an escort of diesel trucks.
“People always said, ‘If you knew her, you loved her,’” said Karissa Labenz, Savannah’s big sister.
Many of Savannah’s friends now have tattoos in her memory.
“So many kids got tattoos,” Shelly said.
And not just kids.
Before the accident, Savannah had the saying “Live the life you love and love the life you live” tattooed on her, but the tattoo artist misspelled a word. She had the tattoo corrected, but her uncles, Shelly’s three brothers, had always given her grief about it.
On the day of the funeral, they revealed that they had gotten the same tattoo, misspelling included, on their rib cages.
“It’s the girliest tattoo with big, fancy, girly writing,” Shelly laughed.
For Savannah’s final resting place, her parents chose a plot beside Savannah’s best friend, Gabrielle Jones, who died earlier that year after battling a rare form of cancer. Gabby’s parents, Kregg and Lanette Jones, agreed that it would be a good idea. That way, their friends could be together when they visited their grave sites.
The Labenz and Jones families have both purchased plots near Savannah and Gabby. In this way, the love for their daughters has cemented the bond the families share in life and death. Whenever Shelly is having a bad day, it brings her comfort to know that Lanette is only a phone call away and vice versa.
“We’re always going to be connected because of the love that we had for the girls, the love of our families together,” she said.
Savannah’s father, Lyle, said tending to her grave site brings him comfort. They mow the area and decorate for holidays. Right now, the young women’s headstones are decked out for Valentine’s Day.
“There’s not a time where you’ll go out there that you won’t see those girls all dolled up,” Shelly said.
Shelly and Lyle know it might seem macabre to some, but everyone mourns in their own ways, they said.
For Karissa, 25, tending to her horse, Duke, has helped her work through the grief of losing her sister. Before the accident, the horse was injured when his leg got tangled in a fence. Savannah helped Karissa nurse Duke back to health.
Savannah would say, “If you help me with my homework, I’ll help you wrap Duke’s leg,” Karissa said.
The horse is now back in good health, and Karissa has registered his name as “Red’s Regal Machine” in memory of her sister.
“Taking care of him gave me something to focus my mind on,” she said.
Gone but not forgotten
Her parents and siblings carry her with them every day. Her brother, Dakoda, recently married, and Savannah made an appearance, smiling from the frame of a large photo.
She loved country music, so Shelly and Karissa bring a large photo of her to concerts for country artists to sign.
Lyle is reminded of his daughter when he cuddles Savannah’s dog, Sophie, a lovable black lab with couch privileges.
Shelly wears an impression of Savannah’s thumbprint on a necklace and she too has a tattoo – Savannah’s signature on the inside of her wrist.
Savannah’s presence also can still be felt in the community.
From an early age, Savannah had excelled at sports, playing softball, basketball and flag football. She was an outstanding student as well, making the honor roll and deans list in a single semester.
To honor her memory, her family awards a scholarship in her name and sponsors a little league softball team, the Blazin Reds.
“It makes me so proud to know that she’s still giving back to the community,” Shelly said.
Anyone who is interested in contributing to Savannah’s memorial can do so at Star Financial Bank where they have an account in her name. The family also does fundraising during Churubusco Turtle Days.
Three years after Savannah’s death, the Labenz family is still taking life day by day, Shelly said.
“As hard as it is, life has to go on,” she said. “Savannah wouldn’t have wanted us to stop living life.”