FAIRPORT — Not being much for the nine-month grind of the school year, Robby Magee is a big fan of summer break. But on a late-June Wednesday morning, his vacation became a nightmare almost before it had begun.
He arrived at St. John of Rochester Church and faced a crucifix, desperately trying to understand why five of his friends were suddenly taken from this earth some 12 hours earlier.
“I screamed to Michelle, ‘Didn’t he do this (die on the cross) to take the pain away?'” Robby recalled about the anguished moments he shared with the parish’s youth minister, Michelle Hunzek. “And she said, ‘He had to do this, so the girls could be up there with him.'”
Five young women had died in a horrific crash the previous evening, only five days after graduating from Fairport High School. Killed in the head-on collision in Ontario County were Hannah Congdon, 18; Bailey Goodman, 17; Meredith McClure, 17; Sara Monnat, 18; and Katie Shirley, 18.
The accident marked the latest, and most deadly, chapter in a tragic year for the Fairport community, which was still coping with the loss of two other Fairport High teens. Alex Ciarico, a junior-to-be, drowned Aug. 28, 2006, while swimming in the Erie Canal at Kreag Road Park. And Natalie Giambattista, also a junior, died on March 27 from cancer.
To lose one young life is tragic enough. To lose seven — including five at once with no advance warning — has been indescribably painful for family, friends and community members.
“It hurts as an adult to see these kids hurt, and they shouldn’t have to,” Hunzek said through tears as she clasped the hand of Lauren Flynn, a close friend of Natalie Giambattista. “It’s just unbelievable, too hard to wrap your arms around. Kids this age aren’t supposed to lose friends. Maybe a grandparent.”
Many have turned to local Catholic parishes to cope with their grief. Hundreds of teens — both Catholic and non-Catholic — flocked to the 11:15 a.m. weekday Mass at Church of the Assumption the morning after the crash, and hundreds more attended a special service that night at St. John of Rochester as well as a subsequent candlelight vigil at the high school.
“Right after it happened I had a lot of questions — why and how? But I think my faith strengthened,” said Colleen Feeney, an Assumption parishioner who participated in the 2006-07 Fairport High varsity cheerleading squad with four of the victims. Colleen added that “everybody bonding together and helping out, it makes everything so much lighter.”
Still, she acknowledged that losing her friends has been the heaviest load she and her peers have ever carried.
“We’ve had to grow up really fast,” she said.
Larry Hall was home watching television the night of June 26 when he received a frantic phone call from his sister, Riley, shortly after 10 p.m. She was still watching in horror the car ahead of her, which had just been crushed by a tractor-trailer and caught fire with all its occupants inside.
“My sister called me right as it happened — ‘I need to talk to Mom, where’s Mom, my friends are dying,'” Larry said.
Riley and her three passengers were driving on Routes 5 and 20 in East Bloomfield, following a sport-utility vehicle that contained their five friends. The nine young women were heading to the Goodman family cottage on Keuka Lake for a fun post-graduation outing.
“I saw most of them, like, every day,” Larry said.
Bailey Goodman, the driver of the SUV, veered into the oncoming lane and hit the tractor-trailer head-on, causing both vehicles to burst into flames. The truck driver was uninjured, but everyone in the Goodman vehicle died at the scene.
Word of the tragedy spread around Fairport during the late night. Robby got the news when his brother Cory woke him up around 6 a.m. June 27.
“He was shouting, ‘Rob, you gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta go to the high school,’ with tears running down his face. ‘Rob, they’re all gone.’ I didn’t believe him, you know? I started screaming, ‘It isn’t true,'” Robby said.
Colleen had the same reaction when her mother broke the news to her at 7 a.m: “I didn’t believe it at all.” She heeded her mom’s urging that she go to the high school, where a stunned crowd was gathering rapidly.
For Lauren, the scene rekindled memories of her friend Natalie, who had died three months earlier of Krukenberg tumors, a rare form of ovarian cancer. At the time of Natalie’s death Lauren had been consoled all day at the high school by youth-group friends, as well as people she didn’t know as well. So on June 27, she wasn’t surprised to see teens and adults congregate in a show of unity that transcended cliques and age differences.
“Fairport is big, but it’s small at the same time,” Lauren said.
Clinging to faith
Robby, upon entering the perpetual-adoration chapel at St. John of Rochester, was concerned that his crying would disturb people in silent prayer. Instead he got a hand on his shoulder and words of comfort from Father Peter Clifford, who had just begun as pastor there.
Late that morning, the 11:15 a.m. Mass at Assumption was packed with “the churched and the unchurched,” according to Marie Claus, youth minister.
“I’m sure some were timid to come, because they hadn’t been to church in years. But they came anyway,” Colleen observed.
Hannah Congdon and Sara Monnat were parishioners of Church of the Assumption, and Katie Shirley belonged to St. John of Rochester. Bailey Goodman’s funeral service was at Fairport United Methodist Church, and although the service for Meredith McClure took place at Browncroft Community Church, she and her sister, Charise, had been active in the St. John of Rochester youth group.
Meanwhile, Larry and Colleen are members of the Life Teen youth group at Assumption. They, along with Robby and Lauren, are all 17 years old and beginning their senior years at Fairport High.
Larry was among a group from Assumption that was set to attend a Life Teen leadership conference at the University of Notre Dame the same week as the girls’ funerals. They grudgingly followed through on their plans, but once there found extensive support from people from all over the country — “the most wonderful, comforting experience,” Claus said.
As the summer has gone on, Hunzek and Claus said healing has slowly begun. For instance, Hunzek noted the positive atmosphere surrounding a “Celebration of Life” ceremony on Aug. 1 at Fairport High, when a large hill was dubbed “Angel Hill” in the crash victims’ memory.
Robby carries such positive memories as Hannah Congdon’s radiant smile and having taken Sarah Monnat to a school dance earlier this year. Larry and Colleen agreed this is the best way to honor the young women.
“They were so full of life, they would hate for us not to be the same way,” Colleen said.
“They would want us to move on. They would say it’s OK to move on,” Larry added.
For Lauren, she said she “can talk about it now with my friends and family without breaking down” regarding Natalie’s death. But she still has her tough days, saying, “We always used to go on bike rides together. Sometimes we’d go down to the canal and get ice cream. We used to play tennis. It’s really weird not to be able to do that.”
Robby, meanwhile, said he’s doing his best to pay heed to Father Clifford’s advice: “He said, ‘When you’re going through hell, you’ve got keep walking.'”
Claus agreed it’s important to move on, yet Colleen also pointed out that “people have to deal with it in their own ways.” Claus concurred with that, saying that she is “absolutely” an advocate of professional counseling for those who struggle to move forward.
Lauren, for one, is finding comfort in her faith, saying that she feels she can still communicate with Natalie.
“I always believed in God and heaven, and that it was something that was far away. When Natalie died it seemed like heaven is closer,” she remarked, adding that Natalie possessed a strong Mormon faith, fighting the disease gamely but also accepting her plight.
Robby said he was initially angry at God for the June car crash, but now looks back and realizes that his faith “really helped me get through it.” Community members have pulled him through as well: As Robby worked his job at Clawson’s Deli in the days after the accident, facing the awful task of selling newspapers with the crash victims’ faces on them, “people were reaching over the counter and hugging me — people I don’t even know.”
In a video currently available on YouTube, Meredith McClure’s parents, Ray and Diane, described similar experiences. “You can feel God all around us, through the people. It’s just been unbelievable,” Ray McClure said. “We feel so bad (but) people can make us feel so good. It’s just beyond description.”
Robby’s spirituality has moved him to give support as well as receive it. Recently, he visited Sara Monnat’s grave and took a Bible given to him by Hunzek. He pulled out a notebook and began penning a letter to Meredith’s sister Charise.
“I just wrote how much I admire her strength, and thanked her for her friendship,” he said, adding that when Charise received the letter, she “jumped into my arms and gave me a hug like I’d never felt before.”
In turn, Robby clings to his own friends like never before.
“It’s the first summer that I’m anxious to get back to school,” he said, “and be with everyone every day.”