Sledding death: Mary Baldwin ponders ban after student accident

A death in nearby Staunton has put a chill on wintertime fun and– temporarily at least– spurred a sledding ban on the hilly campus of Mary Baldwin College.

Grace A. Brooks, a Mary Baldwin junior, died December 6 shortly after colliding with a field hockey scoreboard support pole, says College spokesperson Crista Cabe.

Out of respect for Brooks, Cabe says, the College has prohibited sledding until further notice and is weighing a permanent ban on the popular winter pastime.

The nighttime accident occurred on the "lower activity field," at the bottom of a steep hill on the north end of campus– property that until the 1970s was the grounds of Staunton Military Academy.

"It's been the community sledding area since before Mary Baldwin bought the place," says Cabe.

On December 5, much of Virginia was blanketed by a four- to six-inch snowfall. The following day, Friday, was the last day of regular classes at the small women's college, and Brooks, age 20, was sharing a sled with a fellow student around 11:30pm, Cabe says.

After-dark sledding was against College rules, and a school security guard, according to Cabe, reported that he had seen no one sledding when he made his rounds about 15 minutes earlier. Cabe says that no further investigation is planned.

"It's pretty clear what happened," she says. "There was no indication any alcohol or drugs of any sort were involved."

Cabe says Brooks was traveling backwards on an inflatable triangular sled when the collision occurred, and that in addition to back and neck injuries, she suffered severe head trauma, which caused her death. The other student, whom Cabe declined to name, was uninjured. Brooks still had a pulse when the ambulance arrived, but she died before reaching the hospital. "In terms of her awareness," says Cabe, "it was probably instantaneous."

Here in Charlottesville, sledding is not mentioned in the City Code, except under a provision that gives the City Manager authority to regulate it on public property. UVA spokesperson Louise Dudley says she knows of no rules governing on-Grounds sledding, and officials with the two Charlottesville hospitals say they don't keep records on sledding injuries.

A generation ago, unsteerable snow vehicles weren't unknown, but the biggest question of most sledding enthusiasts was what size Flexible Flyer to order.

Today, the famous sled that featured a wooden deck and steel runners is a hard-to-find retro novelty costing around $75. Meanwhile, the shelves of discount stores are loaded with bright-colored plastic tubes, discs, and other unsteerables that can be purchased for less than $10.

To consumer advocates, there's nothing retro about safety. The Consumer Product Safety Commission thinks helmets for sledders are a good idea, although the federal agency has stopped short of issuing a formal recommendation, says Commission spokesperson Mark Ross.

Nationwide, says Ross, in 2001 there were about 23,000 injuries requiring emergency room treatment, and Ross notes that any recent rise in the popularity of unsteerables has yet to be identified as a trend.

While history and philosophy major Brooks was known at Mary Baldwin as captain of the cross-country team, she had made an off-campus name for herself in military reenactment circles.

In a telephone interview, her mother, Judy, says her daughter's love of reenacting began early while she was growing up near the Civil War's Cold Harbor Battlefield in Mechanicsville. After three or four years of immersing herself in the role of a 19th-century woman– cooking, knitting, and otherwise helping the boys on Civil War battlefields– Brooks made an exciting discovery: Women could heft weapons as Russian World War II re-enactors. About a year ago, she added that role to her repertoire.

"She would read so much and knew so much," says her mother, noting that Brooks would have been the first in her family to graduate from college.

Brooks' fondness for sledding had carried over from childhood to college. Ironically, during a previous winter, Brooks' youngest brother suffered a mild concussion from sledding into a tree near the family house.

"I think she had no idea there was a danger there," says her mother, "because she had been sledding there the night before."