Driver in Connecticut Fatal Crash that Killed 4 Had Only Learner's Permit

December 10, 2010

GRISWOLD, Conn. — A 16-year-old boy with a learner's driving permit was behind the wheel in a one-car accident that killed him and three other teenagers in eastern Connecticut, police said yesterday.

Authorities were investigating what caused the driver, identified as John Clapper, to lose control of the car and strike a tree Tuesday afternoon in Griswold, a rural town 40 miles southeast of Hartford where the deaths sent shock waves through the high school.

Connecticut laws say teen drivers with learner's permits are only allowed to have a parent, legal guardian, or qualified trainer as a passenger when they're driving.

The only surviving passenger is 16-year-old Joel Gallup, who was in the back seat of the 2007 Nissan Altima, according to a state police report.

He was hospitalized in critical condition.

It was unclear whether any of the passengers were wearing seat belts, according to the report.

Grief counselors were working with students as classes resumed yesterday at Griswold High School.

"When five students are involved in a situation like this, it affects everybody,'' Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman said in an interview. "It's a huge loss to our community, and everybody in our school and everybody in our town is feeling it right now.''

The others killed in the accident on a narrow straightaway through a wooded area were identified as 16-year-old Sativa Cornell, 15-year-old Steven Szklarz, and 16-year-old Dillon Clifford. Friends said Clapper and Cornell were dating.

Friends of the victims stopped by the accident scene yesterday, leaving flowers and tacking a snowman ornament on the tree the car struck.

"Steve was my best friend,'' said Floyd Flint, 15. "It's never going to be the same. Anything.''

Clapper received his learner's permit in August and had not been issued a license, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The governor and state lawmakers in 2008 made teen driver laws tougher after several fatal accidents involving young people.

The crash occurred as Connecticut marked Teen Safe Driving Week, and a day after transportation officials announced that fatal crashes in the state were at a 12-year low among 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

Associated Press / December 9, 2010/ Dave Collins

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