Death of former student opens eyes

James Vaughn

Zachariah Houghland tweeted, “I want to impact someone’s life for the good, because helping others before helping myself has always been the way I try to be,” on Sept. 11. He died three days later.

The 19 year old was committed to turning his life around, said Maddie West, one of Zach’s closest friends.

The former USI student was on leave from City of Hope, a faith-based recovery center in Louisville, where he had been for more than three months. He was granted permission to go home the weekend he died.

“He was trying to better his life and find God,” West said.

Zach struggled with prescription drugs and a variety of other substances.

Though his friends and family may never know the exact cause of the accident, West knows he was drinking – she was with him minutes before his vehicle flipped multiple times, killing him instantly.

The night of the accident, the group of friends was at a bonfire in St. Wendel, a town 15 miles northwest of Evansville.

“It wasn’t like he was at some rager,” the sophomore journalism major said. “He wasn’t slammed. He hadn’t been drinking hard alcohol or anything like that.”

West said they were enjoying a relaxing night out in the country.

“We were drinking beer. We were just hanging out,” she said. “When he left, he was as cool as can be. I think that just goes to show that it doesn’t matter if it’s one beer or if it’s 10, you can still be affected by alcohol.”

West said a couple of their friends who had recently gotten DUIs tried to talk him out of driving home.

“They just kept saying, ‘Man, it’s not worth it – it’s not worth getting in trouble again,’” she said. “No one ever thought to warn him, ‘Hey, don’t leave because you could die.’”

No one thinks it’s going to happen to them, she said. Zach thought he was invincible.

“There was nothing he couldn’t do, and if you told him he couldn’t, he was going to prove you wrong,” West said. “He was the most stubborn person I’ve ever come across in my life.”

She said she offered Zach a spare bedroom because she lived nearby, but he refused.

“He said ‘I’m fine. I’m just going to go home,’” she said. “So we were like, ‘Okay, see ya.’”

And that was that – until they heard sirens.

“We were like, ‘It’s almost one in the morning – what happened?’” West said. “It’s a really small town. Everyone knows everyone.”

Being nosy, they followed the emergency vehicles down Boonville-New Harmony Road.

“No one even thought it could be Zach,” she said. “It took us an hour to realize it was him because I was standing there looking at his truck and I couldn’t even tell what it was.”

She said the rest of that night is a blur.

She passes the site of the accident every day, where a cross on the side of the road is a constant reminder of where one of her best friends took his last breath because he decided to drink and drive.

“He did what he’d always done and didn’t think anything of it,” West said. “He did what everyone does. Think of a time you’ve been at a party and someone really called their parents to come pick them up – it just doesn’t happen.”

Dean of Students Angela Batista said students have options.

USI partners with Evansville’s River City Yellow Cab Company to provide students with an alternative during emergency situations. Any student currently enrolled can use SAFE Ride as long as they have their Eagle Access Card on them.

The ride is not free, but there is no charge at the time the ride is taken. It will be charged to the student’s university account. A $20 limit per ride has been established.

Only one student has utilized the service this month.

“I think part of the reason students don’t use it is because if they call, what does it mean for them?” Batista said. “Maybe there’s some fear.”

But SAFE Rides are not reported, she said.

Students should also be aware that if an underage drinker is in danger, the Indiana Lifeline Law grants them immunity from certain alcohol-related regulations, including minor possession, minor consumption and minor transport.

USI’s Student Government Association partnered with students at Indiana University and Purdue University to push for the law, which was enacted in 2012.

As for West and her friends – they learned from the accident.

“It has opened everyone’s eyes so significantly,” she said. “It isn’t until something absolutely tragic happens that you learn from it.”

She said she can’t count the number of times she’s heard a friend say, “You’re not leaving,” or “You’ve been drinking” or “You’re not driving” since the accident.

“My friends and I are so much more aware now,” she said. “I can be at a party and see a girl trying to leave that I’ve never seen in my life and now I would walk up to her, grab her by the shirt and shake her and say ‘Look what can happen.’”

West, who was the last person to hear Zach’s voice and hug him, carries his obituary with her everywhere.

“That pain is with me every day. It’s not just Zach who lost his life; we all lost a part of ourselves when he died,” she said. “When you make the decision to drink and drive, it’s not just you that you’re impacting.”

More than 600 people attended Zach’s showing.

“Nobody should ever have to sit there and look at someone their own age in a casket,” West said.

He never lost touch with the “goofy, hilarious smart aleck” he was, she said. He just improved it.

“I know it’s really contradicting now because you tell people, ‘He was going to rehab and he was bettering his life and he found God and stuff like that,’” she said. “And then they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, and then the weekend he came home, he drank and drove. He was really changing his life around.’”

But to someone who was close to Zach, he had made such a transformation, she said.

The Evansville native had dreams of bringing a City of Hope to his hometown, West said.

“To only get to see his family and his friends maybe once a month, it was really wearing on him,” she said.

Zach’s parents and a pastor who worked with the teen in Louisville have decided to open a local rehab facility in his honor.

As a nonprofit, the facility would cost $300,000 per year to run, but they’re not giving up, West said.

“His family is incredible. They are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” she said. “Because Zach died, they’re not letting it end there. They let him live on through what they do, and it’s so inspiring to see something like that. It wasn’t just all talk after the funeral – we’re making it happen and it will happen.”

She said many details need to be worked out before Zach’s dream can become a reality, and she’s trying to do all she can to help.

She had 150 bracelets designed in Zach’s honor. She is selling them for $5, with all proceeds going to his family. As of Monday, she had raised $350.

The bracelets are purple, Zach’s favorite color, and read: “RIP Zachariah Houghland. 5.3.94 – 9.14.13 #WWSD.”

The “WWSD” stands for: “What would Stoagie do?” A nickname he picked up a long time ago. West said she never called him anything else.

“It just sucks so bad,” she said. “Because of one foolish decision, I never get to see his big Stoagie smile again.”

The day after Zach died, she visited the site of the accident, where an empty beer bottle lay in the open field.

“I was looking for something to blame, and usually in accidents there’s not something you can blame – stuff happens,” West said. “But in this case, alcohol was to blame and I couldn’t help but just get so mad. I kicked that freaking bottle as hard as I could.”