They made an impact

By Ryan Fitzmaurice

Community comes together following loss of Hackenbergs


In communities such as this, tragedy is shared.

Responding to severe car wrecks with injuries is one of the most difficult parts of being a member of the Wyoming Highway Patrol for Trooper Randy Davis.

“In this job, we see a lot of things most people don’t have to see,” Davis said in a publicly shared Facebook video. “We deal with things most people don’t have to deal with.”

But Davis had a personal relationship with the Hackenbergs. They attended the same church he did in Powell for several years.

According to a press release from the Wyoming Highway Patrol, at 7:36 a.m. on Wednesday Feb. 16, a 2005 Toyota Corolla carrying Peiton and Phoenix Hackenberg was headed east on U.S. 14A east of Garland when the driver lost control of
the vehicle and entered the westbound lane, colliding with a 2015 Chrysler 200. The roadways were slick with snowfall at the time of the crash.

Peiton and Phoenix succumbed to their injuries at
the crash scene. Both were wearing seatbelts. 

The driver of the Chrysler has been identified as 31-year-old Powell resident Brittney Baldridge, and the passenger has been identified as 32-year-old Lovell resident Elliot Wittick.  Both sustained significant injuries and were transported to Powell Valley Healthcare. 

“It hits you a little differently sometimes when you’re closer
to that situation,” Davis said in the video.

“We have a tendency to blow things off and act tough,” Davis said in a follow-up conversation with the Lovell Chronicle, advising those who need it to talk it out and seek help. “Sometimes with these things it can be better to feel the adversity, to feel the effects of it.”

While Davis saw the crash scene first hand, his grief is shared by many.

The Hackenbergs were residents of Ralston but were mainstays in the Lovell education community. Brenda Hackenberg, Peiton and Phoenix’s mother, has been a longtime English and
language arts teacher at  Lovell Middle School. Peiton and Phoenix were both students at the high school. 

In a rural, tight-knit school district such as Lovell’s, there’s no such thing as anonymity.

“It changes things because it’s so much more personal,” superintendent Doug Hazen said. “Most of our high school students have had Ms. Hackenberg as their teacher. Many of them were friends with her kids. We know Brenda personally. We know her as a friend, a colleague and a mother. When you know someone like that, no one wants to see their friend, their colleague, someone you know, go through such pain.”

“It’s hard to understand why stuff like this happens.
It’s unexpected.”

Hazen knew Peiton and Phoenix, as well. They would have to wait around after school waiting for their mother to finish up. Pickings can be slim after hours, and Hazen, then the middle school principal, was often who they had to hang out with.

“They were great kids,” Hazen said. “They were fun to be around. They always had a smile on their face. They brought life to any situation they were in.”

Regular joy and energy are traits both Peiton and Phoenix shared, according to those who remember them.

Lovell High School Principal Craig Lundberg is at his first year on the job, but he still had the opportunity to know both of them.

“I don’t know if I ever saw Peiton when she wasn’t smiling. She was constantly laughing and enjoying the time that she had with friends,” Lundberg said. “My own kids said that she was one of the kindest individuals they
had ever met. She was always kind and willing to help those around her.  Seeing her interact with her peers is what I will remember most about Peiton. They always seemed to truly just enjoy each other.”

Lundberg said he gained respect for Peiton after navigating a period of adversity with her.

“I do remember having a difficult conversation with Peiton earlier in the school year,”
Lundberg said. “The thing that stood out to me was just how genuine of a person she is. She was honest, kind, loving and a joy to be around.”

Phoenix, on the other hand, was a constant outpouring
of energy.

“One of my first thoughts was just that I love this kid’s smile. It made me happy. Just to be around him and feed off his energy brought joy to me in that short period of time that we may have interacted that day,” Lundberg said. “I know that if you talked to Phoenix’s friends they would all mention his sense of humor and how he never stopped moving. He was so full of energy.

“Couped up in a classroom was not always the best environment for Phoenix, but he kept everyone hopping,” Lundberg continued. “He would always come in to the office after lunch with a big huge smile on his face and would have some philosophical discussions with our school secretary. He associated with everyone. He was friends with everyone. He could just relate to everyone and people loved that about Phoenix.”

Peiton and Phoenix’s lockers in the high school have been turned into a living memorial, Lundberg said. Both are decorated with  photos and  sticky notes of memories, grief and love from their fellow students. The high school has also started a coin drive for the family after an individual donated multiple large jars full of coins. The students were challenged to meet what is in the jar, later to be donated to the family. The students have met the challenge in a hurry, Lundberg said. 

“When my phone rang on Wednesday it was one of those calls that you never want to receive. From the time that we knew a tragedy had taken place to the time the high school staff and students were informed was very short,” Lundberg said. “I commend our staff for the way that they handled the situation. It was a very tough day for everyone that was involved.

“One of the things I noticed after the students and staff were informed about what had happened was the number of students that were there for each other. The grief that we all felt was shared by everyone in the building. We witnessed students and staff helping and supporting each other,” Lundberg continued.  “Everyone wanted to help each other, everyone wanted to be there for everyone else. There was a time when you would walk down the halls and see groups of students grieving with each other. They were devastated.

“As the day went on those groups began sharing stories about Peiton and Phoenix, and while they were still shedding tears there were some smiles and laughter…I think that is how Peiton and Phoenix would want to be remembered. They would want their friends to laugh and to celebrate the joy they brought into this world and to all those around them.”

Peiton served as a captain on the Lovell High School Cheerleading team. Lauren Shumway, who serves as the coach of the team, said Peiton was instrumental to the team securing a fourth place finish at the Wyoming state competition in January.

“Her smile was always there. She was always making us laugh,” Shumway said. “She was always  trying to find the positive in a situation, and she had the ability to make each and every one of our girls, including myself, feel loved and appreciated. We all knew that she was there for us, and she knew that we were there for her.”

Shumway said her team attended the funeral Saturday in their uniforms, on the family’s request, to remember their captain.

Sister Maddi and mother Brenda Hackenberg said it’s the joy and love of Peiton and Phoenix that they most remember, and it’s what they hope the two can continue to share as their story spreads in the aftermath.

“Phoenix would do anything to make someone laugh and had the biggest heart. Peiton was someone who always had a smile on her face and brought sunshine wherever she went. They were truly the best of friends and did everything together,” Maddi shared in a statement. “The impact from the outpouring support is unreal and mind blowing. The fact that their story has traveled so far is heartwarming because they are making a difference.”

Ways to give support

Community members and local businesses are teaming together to support the victims of the crash.

On Facebook one only needs to type in Help the Hackenbergs to join an auction where 100 percent of the proceeds will go to the family. Businesses and individuals post an item or service they are willing to provide and those interested bid on what they would like. The highest bidder at the close of March 13 will receive their reward.

Already, only a week later, the page has 5,000 members. 

“It’s been incredibly active,” moderator Tiffany Anderson said. “I knew it would be successful and that there were people in the area who would offer their help, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and the love this area has shown.” 

Anderson said the group has already seen donations and participation come from as far as Cheyenne and Montana. 

Donations can also be made through an account at Big Horn Federal that has been created on behalf of the Hackenbergs.

There are also ways for community members to support Wittick and Baldridge, the two injured in the other vehicle involved in the crash. 

A similar auction page has been created for the two titled “Help Elliot Wittick and Brittney Baldridge,” and an account has also been set up for both Wittick and Baldridge at Big Horn Federal, according to the Powell Tribune. 

Brenda Hackenberg said it is this support that continues to give her hope and comfort.

“I am absolutely amazed and humbled by the outpouring of love and community support. I cannot adequately express the comfort it brings me to hear of the impact (Peiton and Phoenix) made in life, and the even greater comfort to see the impact they are making in death,” Brenda said. “I am so proud of my kids. Thank you to all who have reached out and offered prayers and support. You are making a difference.”

Local community members are also continuing to grieve the loss of Brenda Timmons, a Rocky Mountain graduate who died in a fatal motorcycle accident on February 10 in Hawaii. 

Those looking to donate to the Timmons family are asked to write a check at the Bank of Lovell addressed to Katherine Kuhl, with “Brenda” written on the memo line.