LAGRANGE, Ga. — In the yard of the Big Springs United Methodist Church, a small makeshift shrine is perched against a large pine tree. Three orange and blue shakers. Two Auburn banners. A pennant from the 2011 BCS national championship game, where top-ranked Auburn beat No. 2 Oregon 22-19, giving the Tigers their first national crown since 1957.
One of the members of that title-winning squad was Philip Lutzenkirchen. It was in his honor that this temporary memorial was erected. Not more than 25 feet away from the large pine tree adorned with Auburn paraphernalia were pink flags and markings noting where a 2006 Chevy Tahoe came to rest early Sunday morning, killing Lutzenkirchen and the driver of the vehicle, Joseph Ian Davis.
Their lives weren’t forgotten. Written on the items propped against the large pine tree were words of condolence and hope. Some contained Bible scriptures — Matthew 5:4 (“Blessed are that they mourn; for they shall be comforted”) and 2 Timothy 4:7 (“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”).
Others had memories.
“May you dance ‘the Lutzie’ forever in God’s kingdom,” one message read. “Thanks for being an example of a true Auburn man in every way.”
Exactly how this quiet churchyard in southeastern Troup County took on a tragic aura early Sunday morning is still unknown; the two survivors of the crash — 22-year-old Elizabeth Ann Seaton Craig of Eatonton, Ga. and 20-year-old Christian Tanner Case of Dadeville, Ala. — have yet to address it publicly.
It all started with the stop sign.
Driving southbound on Upper Big Springs Road, one sees multiple road signs along the way.
There’s a four-way intersection with Smokey Road. A 55 mph limit. Two signs noting the “low or soft shoulder” and another warning motorists to be on the lookout for trucks entering the highway.
And in an area with dense forestry overhanging the road, there’s a sign letting drivers know there is a stop sign forthcoming.
The stop sign — and the road itself — come to a sloping end, with its terminal at the intersection of Lower Big Springs Road.
According to the Georgia State Patrol, which responded to the accident Sunday morning at 4:17 a.m., Davis never stopped. The GSP released its official traffic crash report Monday, concluding that once the vehicle barreled through the intersection, it hit a ditch and went 89 more feet before hitting another ditch. It then became airborne, flipping multiple times.
Lutzenkirchen and Craig, who were not wearing their seatbelts, were “totally ejected” from the vehicle while Davis was partially ejected. Case, the only passenger wearing his seat belt, was not.
Indicators of the GSP’s investigation were still fresh Monday afternoon. Pink flags traced the path of the vehicle, beginning where it hit the first ditch and ending in the wooded area next to the churchyard, where the Tahoe came to a stop on its roof.
In the immediate vicinity of the crash site, parts of the vehicle were strewn about — a windshield wiper and a headlight. The antenna. A piece of a mirror’s plastic covering. And glass. Lots of small shards of glass.
Monday afternoon, the occasional passing vehicle would pull into the church parking lot, with its occupants emptying out. Some did so simply to pay their respects and leave. Others stayed longer, conducting their own investigations. Performing calculations in their head, they tried to determine the particulars — how, when and why — that made the vehicle leave the ground and begin to flip.
Inevitably, this led them to the spot clearly marked off as the final resting place. The trail of pink flags came to an abrupt end.
But not more than 25 feet away, at the foot of the large pine tree decorated with blue and orange trimmings, one person refused to view the matter in a negative light. In their view, Sunday’s fatal wreck wasn’t the end for the 23-year-old Lutzenkirchen and the 22-year-old Davis.
Rather, it was a beginning.
On a gray T-shirt with “Auburn Tigers” written in pink, the person left four words of hope in black ink.
“You’re home new angels!”