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College binge drinking takes lethal toll

Honor student dies in Colorado

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- By the time the rainy night stretched into early morning, Samantha Spady had been drinking and partying for hours. Earlier it was beer and shots of tequila. Inside a fraternity house, she was swilling vanilla vodka from a bottle.

The binge had gone on for 11 hours. When it was over, the Colorado State student's blood-alcohol level was more than five times the limit Colorado allows when driving. She was stumbling, unable to stand on her own.

Two students wrapped the 19-year-old's limp arms around their necks and walked her to a forgotten fraternity room. They put her on a couch, and a few minutes later, Sam blinked her eyes and nodded as the last person left.

She needed to sleep it off, her friends thought. But the high-school homecoming queen with the megawatt smile was dying.

She was probably in a coma, said Dr. Charles S. Lieber, a specialist in alcohol metabolism at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Sam's brain was asleep, her respiration slowed. If she had received medical help, even that late, she might have lived, Lieber said. But there was no help in the Sigma Pi storeroom.

Soon after, Sam Spady took her last breath.

Sam had grown up in Beatrice, Neb., a small town about 35 miles from Lincoln. Her father owned a car dealership there, and everyone knew Sam. It was hard not to. She had been senior class president. Head cheerleader. Honor student. Homecoming queen.

On weekends, she and her friends often headed out to the country to hang out and sometimes drink beer. But Sam never drank to get drunk, said her best friend from high school, Kelleigh Doyle.

More than anything, she wanted to escape her rural life. Fort Collins, a college town with 127,000 people, was big enough. The sophomore business major quickly made new friends. Mirna Guerra had not known Sam that long when the two decided to get together Sept. 4, the Saturday before Labor Day and the evening of the Colorado State v. Colorado football game.

Sam picked up Mirna, a freshman, just before 6 p.m., and they went to a house to watch the game. Sam downed a beer and two shots of tequila, and ate a hot dog. They left two hours later and watched the rest of the game at another house. Sam drank a few beers from a supersize cup. They left about 10:30 p.m.

Friends told police Sam had been out partying the past three nights. It was not unusual for her to drink three or four times a week. Sometimes, Sam vomited and later passed out. "It's what everyone does," Sam's roommate, Sara Gibson, said. "Some people party every night."

It's college. Away from parents, often for the first time for an extended period, college students are free to experiment with alcohol. There is never a shortage of parties or kegs to tap. All of it is an invitation for binge drinking, said Henry Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Studies at Harvard's School of Public Health.

Nationally, 44 percent of college students report binge drinking -- five drinks in a row for men, four for women -- at least once in the previous two weeks. Half of those students do it more than once a week. While the percentage of binge drinkers has stayed about the same over the past 11 years, the amount they drink at one sitting has increased, Wechsler said.

Of more than 1,400 alcohol-related deaths each year among US college students, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, most are the result of automobile accidents.

About 2:30 a.m. the day of Sam's death, she and Mirna were at the Sigma Pi house, with about 23 others. By 4 a.m., Sam and Mirna were swigging vanilla vodka. They put the bottles to their lips and tilted their heads back, as the room echoed: "Go, go, go!" Minutes later, Sam was sitting on the front stoop, resting her head on her elbows. She was unable to stand and fell back. Her head hung down, and she didn't respond when friends spoke to her. Unresponsive and incoherent, she should have been taken to a hospital then, Lieber said.

The coroner determined that Sam had a blood alcohol level of 0.436 percent, not including the amount her body metabolized while she slept.

Since Sam's death, the Sigma Pi house has been shut down, but the parties continue. Fraternities have banned alcohol, and the effort to keep students from making wrong decisions goes on.

Sam's mother, Patty Spady, said, "Everybody in the community has a responsibility for some changes to take place."

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