A hope-filled weekend trip, a horrid end by the side of I-83

Physicians were returning with children from seeing land for summer camp

January 22, 2004|By Jeff Barker and Laura Barnhardt | Jeff Barker and Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

As the stranger approached the smashed Hummer in the middle of the night, he saw a little girl standing alone on the side of the road.

And buckled into his booster seat, a bewildered 7-year-old boy, who said his name was James.

For years, the children's parents, orthopedic surgeon James Wenz Sr. and child psychiatrist Lidia Z. Wenz, had made the sort of necessary - and occasionally wrenching - career sacrifices that busy professionals make to accommodate their children. This past weekend, their expected purchase of a summer camp was to be another investment in their children's future.

Now, the parents were gone, their bodies flung out of the mangled sport utility vehicle - the horrid end to a hope-filled excursion.

State police said yesterday that it is likely be a month before the investigation might reveal what caused the accident on Interstate 83 in Baltimore County in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The family was returning from a weekend trip to upstate New York, where they had visited James' parents at the spacious Adirondack foothills home where James and Lidia often went with the children to relax.

"It was the family retreat, and I was going to give it to them," James' father, Fred Wenz, said yesterday. "I bought it 20 years ago so the grandkids would have a place to play in the woods or with snowmobiles."

About 1 p.m., the couple said goodbye to his parents and headed out to a site near a lake about an hour away. It had been a dream of Lidia's to run a summer camp, and she and her husband believed they had found an ideal spot.

They hoped to turn it into a camp for children and a high-tech adult education center where future physicians could study for their medical school entrance exams in an idyllic setting, according to friends and relatives.

"They were getting ready to close on it," said Fred Wenz, a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies. "She was going to use it for a camp, and she wanted to take the kids up there for the summers."

Friends said the couple loved the idea because it combined family and professional interests.

Both the Wenzes occasionally felt tugged between their demanding careers and their children.

James Wenz, noted for his work on joint reconstruction, often began patient rounds before dawn on weekends, before returning to their Millersville home to take the family out on their Express Cruiser boat, which was moored on the Magothy River. "You start work earlier than anybody else, and that frees you back up for your family," said John Carbone, a surgeon and family friend.

Lidia Wenz began her career as a nurse, then trained for 10 years to become a child psychiatrist. After practicing for six years, she gave it up in 2001 to raise the children.

"I think it was in some ways a huge sacrifice for her, as it often is for women, but I think she was very comfortable with it," said Dr. Mark Riddle, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Bayview campus, where the Wenzes met and worked.

With the camp, Lidia Wenz had seemed to find the best of both worlds.

Fred Wenz said she and his son "left in the afternoon to meet somebody at the [camp] property, and that's the last we saw of them. I don't know what happened."

En route home, James Wenz made calls to his mother and Carbone, and said the family was stopping for a leisurely dinner on the road. "He left a message on my machine at 9, and he sounded just fine and happy and that things had been progressing with the camp," Carbone said.

Police said Lidia Wenz, 44, was driving and her husband, 40, was beside her when the vehicle swerved across the highway, first into the side of a tractor-trailer, then into the path of another tractor-trailer.

Investigators are reconstructing the events, while looking for mechanical problems with the Hummer or trucks, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a state police spokesman.

Police said that it appears Lidia Wenz was not wearing a seatbelt but that her husband was wearing his.

"I know Lidia very well, and she was meticulous about wearing a seat belt, so I would find it shocking that they would even pull out of the driveway without it on," said Carbone, whose three boys are close to the Wenz children in age.

James and Adrianna, 8, left the hospital yesterday after being treated for minor injuries, and were greeted in their home by relatives and family friends, who were at once grieving and thankful. A funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Pasadena United Methodist Church.

Relatives declined to comment on long-range plans for the children. James Wenz has a twin sister and both parents living. His wife is survived by her mother and two sisters. "There is no shortage of people to look after the kids," Carbone said.

The man who found the children was on his way home to White Marsh from a part-time bartending job in Timonium when he came across the accident scene about 1 a.m.

Jarrod Cronin, a 31-year-old kite manufacturer, called 911 and started toward the Hummer.

"At first I was terrified of what I might see," he said. "I guess autopilot just took over."

"It was so surreal-looking to see the damage and then see that these kids were pretty much untouched," Cronin said. "I just stood there for a second in amazement and disbelief of what had happened."

"A lady got there about the same time and said, `I think someone's inside.'"

He and the woman took the children from the wreck to wait for authorities.

"It was dark and they were far enough away," Cronin said. "I'm pretty sure they didn't see anything. They were in such shock. I don't think they could comprehend what happened."

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