Kansas University student and Air Force Staff Sgt. Neil Hockenbarger, 26, was killed in a single-vehicle accident early Thursday morning, at the intersection of Michigan Street and Sunchase Drive, north of the Kansas Turnpike in Lawrence.
The gray Mazda he was driving left the street and struck a tree and a power pole about 12:15 a.m., splitting the pole in two, police said. Hockenbarger, the driver, died at the scene. His wife, Tiffany Hockenbarger, 25, Lawrence, was riding in the car and suffered minor cuts and bruises, Lawrence police said. She was checked and released at the scene after opting not to get medical attention.
According to Sgt. Susan Hadl, the vehicle was believed to be driving north on Michigan Street when the driver missed a turn onto Sunchase Drive and overcorrected - causing the vehicle to hit the utility pole and ultimately come to rest against a tree. Preliminary reports indicated the vehicle also may have caught fire, but the fire quickly subsided.
Hockenbarger was born and raised in Leavenworth and was a staff sergeant in the United States Air Force. He graduated in 2000 from Pleasant Ridge High School in Easton. He has family in Leavenworth and De Soto.
"He was wonderful," his mother, Joan Hockenbarger, said during a brief conversation Thursday afternoon.
Neil Hockenbarger was taking classes through a program with KU's Air Force ROTC unit. He had attended KU before becoming active in the military and joined the Air Force ROTC unit this summer to continue working on his degree.
Hockenbarger, previously an aircraft maintenance specialist, was selected for a competitive program through the Air Force, called the Airman Education and Commissioning Program, said Lt. Col. Gena Stuchbery, commander and adjunct professor of the KU Air Force ROTC department. He was completing the final two years of a mechanical engineering degree as part of the program.
"He seemed to be a very forthright man of integrity and a very dedicated person," Stuchbery said. "He had his life goals, he wanted to get this degree and become an officer. He was well on his way to doing that."
She said the Air Force was providing support to his widow and family.