College Student's Fatal Fall: Where To Place The Blame? Some Suspect Alcohol, Others Dorm Safety.

Posted: November 25, 1997

ARLINGTON, Va. — On Halloween night, after making the rounds of several off-campus parties, 18-year-old Virginia Tech sophomore Mindy Somers did what every parent of every college kid might hope: She got a ride back to her dormitory, went to her eighth-floor room, and got into bed.

A few hours later, the Dean's List student and former editor of her high school newspaper in this Washington suburb was dead, apparently having fallen through a window adjoining her bed to the ground 90 feet below.

School officials and the campus police speculate that Somers, who had been drinking, may have become disoriented during her sleep and slipped out the bottom-hinged window that opened like a chute beside her bed.

Now university police and investigators from the Virginia Alcohol Control Board (ACB) are considering criminal charges against the people who served alcohol to the underage Somers.

School officials are examining the design of the windows in the 25-year-old dormitory and are considering structural modifications.

Local news accounts have focused on tests that showed Somers' blood alcohol level to be more than twice Virginia's standard for intoxication.

And her parents are struggling to understand how this could have happened.

``She went home and went to sleep,'' said her mother, Sandra Somers. ``She did what she was supposed to do. You figure that she'd be safe.''

In the last several months, fatalities resulting from college drinking have made headlines around the country. Yesterday, Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen - inspired in part by Mindy Somers' death - announced the formation of a task force to study binge drinking by college students.

But it's not at all clear that what befell Mindy Somers can be blamed on alcohol.

Asked whether he could say if drinking killed Somers, Virginia Tech Police Chief Mike Jones paused a long time before replying.

``I don't know that I could answer that,'' he said. ``I just don't know.''

* On Friday, Oct. 31, Sandra Somers received a Halloween card.

``See you manana. Love, Mindy.''

Melinda Marie was her youngest child, the easiest of the three, and Sandy used to joke with her that she was a good one to have had last, to ``get me through my old age.''

Sandy and Mindy's father, Howard, separated when she was 8 years old, but they all still got along. Now Sandy was planning to drive down to Blacksburg, in the hills of southwest Virginia, to celebrate Mindy's 19th birthday with a football game and dinner out.

By all accounts, Somers was happy at Tech. She had made the Dean's List with over a 3.4 average and was majoring in communications.

``A cursory psychological profile taken by the school showed no indications of the typical trails that problem kids leave,'' school spokesman Larry Hincker said.

Sandy left Arlington about 7:30 a.m. on Saturday to make the 4 1/2-hour drive to Blacksburg. When she arrived at Mindy's dorm, Slusher Hall, a campus policeman was at the front door. He asked her what room she was visiting and then her name.

``You need to come with me,'' the officer said. He took Sandy to another officer inside the dormitory, who informed her that Mindy had died from a fall from her window.

According to what investigators told the family, Somers had gone to two Friday night parties, one at a friend's apartment and the other an outdoor block party on a street adjoining the campus. Somers ate some pizza and was drinking beer.

Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., a friend drove her back to Slusher. By 4 a.m., she was asleep in her bed, fully clothed, according to her roommate, Laura Lewis, and three friends who also slept in the room.

At 6:45 a.m., Somers' body was discovered on a grassy area below her dorm window by a newspaper carrier. She was fully dressed, her student ID in her pocket. She had fallen on her right side and died of massive chest and abdominal injuries, according to the medical examiner.

Upstairs, her bed was aligned with the window, her mattress almost level with the opening. A mesh screen had been pushed out, apparently by the force of her body.

* Slusher Hall opened in 1972 and, at 10 stories, is the tallest building on the Tech campus. Tall, vertical windows feature a bottom panel that swings open into the room from a bottom hinge. The panel is 44 inches wide and, when opened, creates a gap from 11 to 18 inches high.

The beds in Slusher are often bunked, but students may arrange them differently. Howard Somers helped his daughter rearrange the furniture when she moved into the room, and Mindy wanted the bed butted up against the window lengthwise. His only concern at the time was that she not get a chill from the cold air.

``I never saw the window opened fully,'' said Somers, a computer specialist who lives in Rockville, Md. ``I never would have imagined this. That's my biggest guilt.

``When I picked up her belongings after, I saw the window opened down to the bed,'' he said. ``I was mortified. It's like a cattle chute.''

When the 5-foot-4, 105-pound Somers rolled out of bed or tried to rise, she apparently fell into the window opening and slid down through the screen.

Landrum Cross, vice president of student affairs, said the screen was not designed to act as a safety net.

``She must have been dreaming about trying to get out of bed, about trying to get out of somewhere,'' Howard Somers said.

``I know she wasn't pushed,'' her mother said. ``I know she didn't do it on purpose.''

This was the first time someone had fallen through a window in Slusher Hall. Students were advised after Somers' death to move their beds away from the windows. An official committee is investigating the window design.

In Blacksburg, news accounts have focused on the fact that Somers was legally drunk. Two weeks before her death, she was charged with using a fake driver's license to purchase alcohol; the drinking age in Virginia is 21. Mindy told her mother that she'd gotten a fake ID when she was home last summer so she could go to some clubs.

``When I heard about the citation, I went the whole emotional gamut of telling her, `Handle it yourself if you're so grown up,' to wanting to help,'' said Sandy, who works for a mortgage firm. ``We were going to discuss whether she needed a lawyer.''

Tech officials said they were assisting the state ACB in locating whoever served alcohol to Somers. They described her death as a ``freak accident.'' Spokesman Hincker said they are wondering why her clothes or body didn't catch in the window.

Both Howard and Sandy Somers reject the notion that their daughter was a victim of alcohol abuse.

``Once you're home and in bed, alcohol didn't kill her,'' Sandy said.

What killed Mindy Somers?

For the moment, her father is not contemplating legal action. He wants Tech officials to examine the safety issues and consider a memorial scholarship for his daughter. Yet he is angry that ``they are pinning the thing on alcohol,'' he said.

``Alcohol might have been a contributing factor, and it might not,'' he said. ``But this is a dorm room where kids live, and the first concern should be safety.''

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