A crash in Wellington that killed two young equestrians Saturday night marked a tragic beginning for the village’s equestrian season.
Dana McWilliams, 19, who recently moved to Wellington from Connecticut, and Christian Kennedy, 21, of Iowa, were killed when McWilliams lost control of her 2013 Chevy Camaro just after 11:30 p.m. Saturday while driving “at a high rate of speed” along South Shore Boulevard south of Pierson Road, according to a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report. The car careened over the median, striking trees before stopping several hundred feet from where the crash began.
Both McWilliams and Kennedy were declared dead at the scene, PBSO said. A third person in the car, 24-year-old Elaine Halloran of Wellington, was critically injured and taken to St. Mary’s Medical Center. Her condition was unknown as of Monday evening.
A makeshift memorial near the crash site continued to grow Monday evening. Friends set photos of McWilliams and Kennedy, stuffed animals and bouquets of fresh flowers near the base of a tree.
McWilliams began working about six months ago as a groom for show-jumper trainer Maarten Huygens, who splits his time between Wellington and New York. She was “a great girl,” Huygens said. “A hard worker, always in a good mood, always on time.”
Despite being fresh on the show-jumping scene, McWilliams was quick to learn the ropes: “This was all kind of new to her, because she wasn’t really working with show jumpers until she started to work for us,” Huygens said.
The close-knit, young crowd in the Wellington barn was reeling Monday after hearing the news of McWilliams’ death, Huygens said. “They get here all excited about the year,” he added. “And it’s a sad way to start, you know?”
A GoFundMe online fundraiser started by McWilliams’ brother, David, to help pay for funeral expenses had already surpassed its $8,500 goal by Monday afternoon, with $8,520 just before 4 p.m.
“Words cannot express the devastating heartbreak that my family and I feel in knowing that we’ve lost my beautiful, 19-year old sister, Dana McWilliams,” David McWilliams wrote on the fundraising page. “She was such a beautiful person, so full of life and she was loved by so many people. This loss is so sudden, so tragic and feels barely comprehensible. We thank you all who have reached out and appreciate all the message (sic) of love and support.”
Dressage: ‘It wasn’t just a job for him’
Kennedy was a budding star in the dressage world. Oded Shimoni, owner of OS Dressage in Wellington, said Kennedy was “an amazing young man” who had worked for Shimoni for about eight months. “He truly loved horses,” Shimoni said. “It wasn’t just a job for him. He actually loved these animals.”
Kennedy was described as having a natural talent for dressage, with a positive energy that spread to those around him. “In stressful times, he always had something positive to say,” Shimoni said. “He always had a joke.”
Those who knew Kennedy are devastated, he added. “At the moment, we are all in shock.”
Kennedy’s death hit close to home for Wellington-based dressage trainer and rider Ilse Schwarz. She met him in 2015 in Tryon, N.C., where she was teaching a clinic.
“It was clear that his talent was going to send him to Wellington relatively quickly,” Schwarz said, so she invited him to stay with her in Wellington for 10 days just before Christmas in 2015. He joined Schwarz as a working student in February 2016, and worked for her until earlier this year, when he went to OS Dressage.
“He was so trainable,” Schwarz said. “He looks good on a horse. He had instincts, just good, basic instincts, the sort of thing you can’t train.”
Kennedy was on his way to a bright future, possibly with the U.S. Olympic team, Schwarz said. She has been amazed by the outpouring of support — and she now hopes to turn the tragedy into a movement. She referenced other late-night, high-speed crashes involving people in the equestrian community, some of which have been fatal.
Reminder of another fatal crash that killed 2
The most recent: Nearly two years ago, two up-and-coming equestrians were killed in a crash in Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club.
Andres Rodriguez, a 31-year-old Venezuelan who was seen as a future Olympian, lost control of his 1992 Porsche Roadster and crashed into a concrete pole on Jan. 4, 2016. His passenger, 30-year-old amateur rider Sophie Walker, also was killed. A medical examiner’s report later revealed Rodriguez’s blood-alcohol concentration was nearly twice the legal limit to drive.
“I want to make sure that it’s not just one of those things that people say, ‘Oh, it happened again,’” Schwarz said. “People need to know they can let their children come to Wellington knowing that the community is looking out for them.”
She’s not sure what she’s going to do — but she already has a lot of support. After posting a column about the crash on the Dressage News website, Schwarz has received an outpouring of comments and offers of help.
“I’ve seen this happen before and I’ve not done anything. This is touching so close to home, it is prompting me to act,” She said. “I’ve not been somebody to sit back and wait. I’m not going to sit back and wait now.”