By Dana Delgado
Plans by five Liberty Hill High School students for a spring break filled with fun, friends, and music at Austin’s South by Southwest Music Festival turned into something they never imagined — a brush with death.
Just past midnight on March 13, with the iconic event ramped-up and amped-up with music blaring from a multitude of venues, the throng of festival goers scampered across the barricaded streets to catch another music act before everyone called it a night.
LHHS students Grace Neill, Mason Endres, Alexis Zamarripa, Will Smith and Will Meng found themselves near the corner of Red River Street and 10th Street, waiting for Mason’s father, Dan Endres, to pick them up. For them, the night was over. They were ready to go home, and Endres was only five blocks away.
With the exception of Miss Endres, all of the students were attending their first SXSW Festival. Miss Endres, who wants music to be her life, attended the festival last year for the first time.
Amidst all the excitement at exactly 12:30 a.m., a car came out of nowhere barreling down Red River towards them. Miss Neill’s first thought was that it was an act, a dramatic exit or entrance of some musician in the grand style that is SXSW. It was not.
The speeding car plowed through the crowd thrashing bodies every which way. In an instant, she was struck, too.
“It happened so fast,” said Miss Neill. “There was no time to react. There was only screaming. I was hit by the front of the car and thrown to the car.”
Miss Neill said as she was being struck, she could clearly see her best friend get hit.
“As I was getting hit, I saw Mason get plowed,” she recalls. “I could see exactly what she was wearing, a plaid button up shirt and jeans. It was so clear.”
Flung to the curb, the senior student found herself dazed, believing it was surreal.
“Alexis and I were on the ground, dizzy,” she said. “I thought it was all a dream.”
Smith, who suffered an ankle injury from the impact, helped them up from the ground. The street, which had been filled with excited festival goers only moments before, was a bloody, chaotic scene.
“There was complete hysteria,” said Miss Neill, “with so many bodies on the ground. I didn’t know if they were dead or not. I remember the EMS focusing on those unconscious and the tons of cops. I stood there and watched them perform CPR and take away those critically injured. We were hugging and crying. I think we were all in shock.”
One of those transported was a bleeding, unconscious person who had been lying nearby whom she had believed to be her friend Miss Endres because of similar clothing. As they carried the person away, it became evident to Miss Neill that thankfully, it was not her friend.
Realizing now that Miss Endres wasn’t with them, Miss Neill said they asked Meng, who was on the other side of the street, to look for her. She made a call to her mother to tell her Miss Endres was missing and to come down to Red River and 10th. By this time they had already called Miss Endres’ father.
“It was intense,” said Endres. “Alexis called me frantically telling me that Mason had been in an accident. I was only five blocks away.”
“Will went looking for Mason and about two minutes later found her lying on the street only several yards away,” Miss Neill said. “He believed her to be conscious and said she was completely covered in blood.”
Miss Endres was rushed to St. David’s Hospital with a broken leg, a fractured neck, a concussion and a broken nose. It would take her father several hours to find out where she had been transported.
While Meng and Smith remained on the scene for hours for questioning by the Austin Police Department as part of the investigation, Miss Neill and Miss Zamarripa were taken to South Austin Hospital where they were treated for minor leg injuries and released.
“My mom came to the hospital, but couldn’t see me until 4 a.m.,” said Miss Neill. “It was with mixed emotions that I reunited with my mom, but I was so relieved and gave her a big hug. I just wanted to be home. My mom looked relieved, but scared. She made a joke about my mascara which had run. She said I looked like a clown and rubbed my face with a paper towel.”
Before leaving, Miss Neill stopped by to say goodbye to Miss Zamarripa who was in the adjacent room.
A few days later, spring break was over and the nearly 20,000 including Grace Neill, Alexis Zamarripa, Will Smith and Will Meng who had attended SXSW were home or on their way home.
Three had lost their lives in the tragedy. Of the 23 that had been hospitalized, only a few still remained. Among them was Miss Endres.
“I think I’ve been getting better every day,” she said from her hospital room on Sunday, smiling and upbeat. “Although, this morning I was so exhausted and pretty much out of it.”
Miss Endres says she has no memory of the incident or for that matter, much of that day.
“I had no idea what happened until people around me told me at the hospital the next day,” she said. “I feel bad for my friends because I do not remember anything and they recall everything. What surprises me most is that I actually got hit by a car, but the biggest surprise has been all the positive reaction.”
Besides getting an uplifting visit by one of her favorite bands, Jared & The Mill, who were playing at SXSW, there has been an outpouring of support, prayers and well-wishes.
LHHS Counselor Kristy Kercheville paid a visit to reassure the senior about her studies and the Public Relations Office of the University of Texas reached out via Twitter to the soon-to-be Longhorn.
Her hospital room has been filled with balloons, cards, flowers and other gestures of support. And while the music festival may be over, she is still drawing standing room only crowds. To stay in touch with her friends, Miss Endres has been using a borrowed IPad since she lost her phone at the scene.
Miss Endres said she knows her recovery will take time and will likely include physical therapy, but she is ready to get started and get home.
“I’m anxious to get back on my feet,” she said. “My butt really hurts and I really want to be in my own bed. I’m looking forward to going back to school, but I’m going to have to go to the prom with my neck brace. I’m just so thankful for all my friends and can celebrate that I’m still here.”
Her parents, Dan and May Endres, expressed their thanks to the staff of St. David’s Hospital and their good friends Kim Hofstetter and CJ Johnson who have supported them at every step. They say they are proud to be from Liberty Hill because of “all the amazing people.”
Active in the National Honor Society for the last two years and serving as an officer of her senior class, Miss Endres said the experience has brought her closer to her friends especially those who were with her on Red River and 10th Street. Miss Neill echoes those sentiments. The teens have been friends since second grade. Miss Neill plans to attend the prom with Will Smith, and has been close with Will Meng and Miss Zamarripa for some time.
“We’ve all grown closer from the experience,” Miss Neill said. “And we’re all going through the same phases. At first we didn’t want to get out of bed. Then we were sore. Now, I’m not sleeping much, but trying to talk about it all because I know that helps.”
Miss Neill said she has spent time with the others since the tragedy and they have comforted each other, but it has been difficult.
“It’s going to be hard especially with Mason’s condition,” she said. “Mason and I have a very special friendship. She is an amazing person. She’s always been there for me and now I will be there for her.”
While tragic, Miss Neill says she is forever changed by the experience in a very positive way.
“It has changed my life tremendously,” she said. “I’ve come to realize that life is so precious, even the little things. It’s made me appreciate my friends even more. I want to give everyone a hug and say sorry to anyone I ever hurt. All the silly things don’t matter. Only a few seconds turned everything completely. I’m not going to ever take anything for granted.”
Miss Neill says days later, the incident remains very vivid in her mind.
“I can still see the dark grey car with very dark tinted windows coming so fast at us at exactly 12:30 in the morning,” she said. “After they released the man’s name and his picture, I could finally put the face with the man and the car, but the crashing images come back all the time. But I am so thankful for the community, friends, family, and just everyone who have been absolutely touching, amazing. I will always remember it for the rest of my life.”
Following high school graduation in June, Miss Neill plans to attend Texas A&M University to study engineering technology while Miss Endres will attend UT. Smith will be attending college in Colorado and Meng will be going into the U.S. Marines. Miss Zamarripa is a junior at LLHS. While going separate ways after graduation from high school, they will carry away the memories of an unforgettable early morning on the streets of downtown Austin.