In 2014, a fatal car accident tore a hole in three Whitley County families and left the community reeling. In this and the next two editions, we will bring you the stories of these families – what has helped them heal and how they are keeping their loved ones’ memories alive.
On a frigid January morning, Braden Coffelt, 24, entered the office of Cider Mill Propane in Columbia City. His younger brother, Colton, a senior at Columbia City High School, walked in moments later.
Bleary-eyed, Braden made a beeline for the coffeemaker.
“I didn’t get to bed until about 3 o’clock in the morning,” he explained.
The night before, he had to make a run to Ohio for business and didn’t get back until late.
Both brothers began working for the family business before high school graduation – Braden when he was a junior and Colton when he was a freshman.
Their father, Perry “Joe” Coffelt, founded the company in 2011 after 20 years in the propane business. Joe had always told his sons that the company would be theirs someday, but someday came suddenly on Nov. 28, 2014 – Black Friday.
Three years ago
That night, the Coffelts received a call about a car accident on their road. They could see the flashing red and blue lights less than a half mile from their home.
Joe had taken his red Mustang convertible on one last joyride before storing it for winter. His three passengers included Braden’s girlfriend Savannah Labenz, 19, and friends Eric Hoffman, 19, and Breanna Waugh, 19.
The car was traveling northbound on County Road 300 East when the single-car accident occurred, just north of Hartman Road.
According to the crash report, the car left the east side of the road for an unknown reason. It struck several trees on the east side embankment and then flipped end over end, coming to rest on its top.
Joe, Savannah and Eric were pronounced dead at the scene. Breanna, the sole survivor, was taken to a hospital for her injuries.
The fatal accident tore a hole in the community. The loss is still deeply felt, Braden said.
“You’re always going to wake up and say, ‘Where are they at?’” he said.
Big shoes to fill
After the accident, a relative managed the family business while Braden, Colton and their mother Lori grieved with family and friends.
After the funerals, Braden, who was 21 at the time, went back to work. Having something to do helped him work through his grief.
“It saved me – that and family. It kept my mind off of things,” he said.
Stepping into his father’s shoes was daunting at first, but Braden soon realized that his father had already taught him everything he needed to know.
“[Dad] had me involved in everything – the paperwork, the customer service, the gas haul, everything. I used to get mad at him making me do everything, but now it makes sense. He prepared me for the worst,” Braden said.
Colton, who was 15 at the time of the accident, had only recently started working for the company. These days, he might work a six-hour shift on a school day, pulling longer shifts on school breaks. After he graduates this year, he plans to work in the family business full-time.
“It’s kind of nice thinking that you’re going to follow in your dad’s footsteps,” he said.
A bonding experience
Braden said losing their father forced him and Colton to grow up quickly.
“I never fully got to be a kid – and that’s fine with me. I don’t mind it. Dad prepared me for the worst. I am who I am today because of that,” he said.
He recalled a line from a TV show where a father says to his son, “The day your grandpa died was the day I became a man.”
It resonated with him.
“I was like, ‘Holy smokes!’ When Dad was here, I didn’t necessarily know how to take charge. Since he’s been gone, I’ve had to. Until you’re thrown into the moment, you don’t really know what to do,” he said.
The accident didn’t just force the brothers to grow up – it forced them to grow close, Colton said. They didn’t always get along and there was the age difference.
“We didn’t get along at all for a long time,” Colton said. “Then, I think we finally got to know each other a lot better after the accident.”
A father’s legacy
Everything about the business reminds them of their father. A large photo of Joe hangs in the office. He’s a figure that continues to inspire their work ethic, and they still want to make him proud.
They can still remember him saying, “Be a leader, not a follower.”
Joe was serious, but he also loved to have fun. His sons have continued his legacy of good-natured teasing in the office, said Abby Wigent, Joe’s cousin and the company’s secretary.
Abby received the nickname “Wabby” from her cousin Joe because of an inside joke they shared. Last year, Colton’s Christmas present to her was a name plate for her desk that reads “Wabby Wigent.” It’s the first thing customers see when they walk in the door.
Abby has watched Braden step into his father’s role as company president.
“For this much being thrown into his lap at such a young age, he’s done a real good job,” she said of Braden.
Taken aback by the compliment, Braden asked her, “How do those words taste?”
Pretending to gag, she laughed, “I need a drink of water.”