Unusual accident takes life of vibrant Lawrenceville teen

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Katie Puwalowski had a passport in her name and money saved in the bank. She was ready to fly, and next year, she planned to.

The 19-year-old Lawrenceville resident -- a rising sophomore at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe -- was working extra hours at her catering job this summer so that during next year's spring break, she could travel with college classmates to Sao Paulo, Brazil, on a service trip.

She had saved up more than a thousand dollars and last week, her passport arrived, said Adele Rutherford of Shaler, the mother of Ms. Puwalowski's best friend, Marina.

"She was excited about that. She was so thrilled," Mrs. Rutherford said.

On Monday night, she was excited for another reason. Her boyfriend, Dean Graner, a classmate at Saint Vincent, was returning from his own service trip to China, and she drove to Pittsburgh International Airport to pick him up.

It was about 11:15 p.m. and she was driving east on the Parkway near Carnegie -- and Mr. Graner was telling her a story about his trip, Mrs. Rutherford said -- when a tire fell off the Jeep Grand Cherokee that 18-year-old David Praskovich Jr. was driving west. He managed to drive his car to the side of the Parkway and was not injured.

The tire, after it came loose, bounced across the concrete barrier and struck the roof of Ms. Puwalowski's car. From the passenger seat, Mr. Graner steered the car to the side of the road. State police continue to investigate the incident.

"She was laughing one second and gone the next," is what Mrs. Rutherford said Mr. Graner told her at UPMC Mercy, where Ms. Puwalowski was pronounced dead at 12:35 p.m. Tuesday.

It was an abrupt end to a vibrant life, the worst example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a tragedy made more terrible because it was so unexpected.

"Anytime you lose someone, it's a direct hit to people, but at the same time, when things happen like this, it's very confusing," said Michael J. Pendred II, the principal of North Catholic High School, from which Ms. Puwalowski graduated in 2011. "We're very taken aback by it. It's an oddity. We don't understand what happened."

Tires occasionally come off cars as they are driving, state police said, but fatalities from those incidents are rare. But three decades ago, a similar accident happened in almost the same spot on the Parkway.

According to a January 1980 article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a New Brighton woman had just picked up her daughter at the airport and was driving to Oakland when a spare tire popped off a tractor trailer traveling in the opposite direction. The tire bounced over the concrete divider and struck the roof of the woman's car, killing her instantly.

In the hours since he heard of Ms. Puwalowski's death, Brother Nathan Cochran has been reflecting on how something with such a small chance of happening could have happened to his student. Brother Nathan, the chair of the visual arts department at Saint Vincent, was her freshman year academic adviser.

"I think you always ask that question, particularly when it is such a bright, happy, popular, talented young woman," he said.

Ms. Puwalowski, who was born March 22, 1993, lived in Lawrenceville with her father, Walter, and her brother, Matthew. She was always happy, said Marina Rutherford, her best friend since kindergarten, and always laughing.

"When I picture Katie, I picture her laughing, because that's just what we did together constantly," she said.

She was deeply religious, said Mr. Pendred, her high school principal. He called her death a "tremendous loss" for the tight-knit community at North Catholic High School.

"She was one of the students that more or less epitomized what we want North Catholic students to represent," he said.

Ms. Puwalowski went to Saint Vincent College with the help of several scholarships, and she was initially interested in art but last year decided to become a sociology major, Mrs. Rutherford said. After college, she wanted to be a social worker, she said.

That dream -- and many others -- was dashed in an instant on Monday night, a reminder, Mrs. Rutherford said, of "how fleeting things are."

"That's been the general talk at the hospital, how you have to enjoy every second with everybody," she said.

The family is struggling to pay for funeral arrangements, and created a website for donations at www.wepay.com/donations/71539. By Wednesday evening, more than $10,000 had been donated.

Viewings will take place today and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Hahn Funeral Home & Cremation Services at 123 North Ave. in Millvale. A funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Holy Spirit Church in Millvale.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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