The day Fairport changed forever


In the quaint, laid back town of Fairport, New York, summer days fly by faster than you can drive with your windows down. For the few months of the year where Western New York enjoys what many consider to be ideal weather, spirits are high and good times are to be had.

Good times are exactly what the future held for Meredith McClure, Hannah Congdon, Katie Shirley, Bailey Goodman and Sara Monnat. In June of 2007, all five of those young women had recently graduated from Fairport High School and were looking forward to enjoying one last summer together before they would head off to their respective colleges. All five had graduated only days prior before they headed lakeside to reign in the summer of 2007. And all five would have their lives cut short due to an accident thatĀ  Sgt. Tate Colburn of the Ontario County sheriff’s department referred to as “the worst accident we’ve ever investigated.”

- – -

Days after completing my freshman year of high school, I woke up early at about 5:30 a.m. on on the morning of June 27th. I was up early for junior varsity football lifting, which took place at the weight room in Fairport High School, a short walk from my own house. While predictably struggling to wake my body up and conversing with teammates on that early summer morning, it seemed like just another summer morning to me.

About 30 minutes into our workout, our strength and conditioning coach brought my teammates and I outside of the weight room to the bottom of “the hill” that begins at the bottom of Fairport High School’s campus. As football players, we had known this hill all too well, but for conditioning drills and grueling workouts. Yet when Coach Micca brought the team outside to the bottom of the hill, we all could sense that we weren’t brought out there to run hills on this particular day. No, rather we were brought out to the hill for another reason, a reason that would later change each and every one of our lives.

We were led to the top of the hill by Coach Micca, who simply prompted for us to sit and pray.

Pray? For what? All of the sudden, it was becoming more and more clear that something terrible had happened. As we were walking up that hill, we saw dozens of Fairport students and teachers already at the hill top, just minutes past 6 a.m. on a summer morning. We heard the heartbreaking sounds of sobbing friends and sniffles as students and teachers alike united to comfort one another. As I sat at the top of that hill next to FHS, I desperately wanted to know what the situation was. Many of my teammates were also confused and concerned, like myself. Murmurs began to spread and teammates began to talk.

Students and teachers gather at the top of Angel Hill next to FHS on the morning of June 27, 2007.sniffles as students and teachers alike united to comfort one another. As I sat at the top of that hill next to FHS, I desperately wanted to know what the situation was. Many of my teammates were also confused and concerned, like myself. Murmurs began to spread and teammates began to talk.

Those same five girls that I mentioned earlier, all full of bright futures and lives longing to be lived, had been killed in a fiery car accident just hours prior while on their way to the lake in the late night hours of June 26, 2007. Perhaps the worst part of the accident was the fact that driving in the car directly behind the five girls was four of their friends. Four friends witnessed the entire accident take place, as the car of the five girls crashed head on into a tractor trailer roughly 30 minutes outside of Fairport.

We all continued to sit on that hillside, bowing our heads, praying and hoping. Hoping that someone would pinch us and wake us up. This had to be some kind of bad dream, right? There’s just no way … and second by second, it became more and more clear. This wasn’t just a bad nightmare. This was reality, and all of Fairport would have to face it. Together.

In order, the Fairport Five Angels: Hannah Congdon, Bailey Goodman, Meredith McClure and Katie Shirley.

In order, the Fairport Five Angels: Hannah Congdon, Bailey Goodman, Meredith McClure, Sara Monnat and Katie Shirley.

With senior graduation having taken place and summer having just officially begun, this was a start to summer that no one in Fairport could have anticipated. Sitting atop that hillside, I felt completely alone despite being surrounded by dozens of my teammates and classmates. The eery feeling that had crept its way into me had my mind racing.

How could this happen? Where do we go from here? And most importantly, I couldn’t begin to fathom the pain that each of those five girls’ families must be enduring.

During my short minute walk back home from FHS, I still couldn’t stop my mind from racing. I walked in the front door of my house at roughly 8 A.M. to find my Mom in the kitchen with the television on.

“Did you hear the news?” was the first thing we said to each other. We talked over what we had each heard, both of us in disbelief. All five of these girls, all five of their families and their hundreds of friends were in pain right now. A pain that no one should ever have to face.

Sara Monnat, one of the victims in the accident, has a younger sister, Emily, who has lived no more than a football field’s length away from me since middle school. She’s someone that I had always felt comfortable around, someone that everyone had always been fond of and a good friend. And now, she was in need of her friends and family more than ever.

I sat on the bumper of the mini-van in my driveway around noon on that day, phone in hand. I wanted to text Emily and say something, to let her know that I was there for her, that we all were there for her. But what do you say? No combination of words I can offer seemed to be the right ones. I was truly at a loss for words.

As the news spread, friends called and texted one another, all sharing their own grief and disbelief. When I look backĀ  and reflect on that day now, it truly is such an odd memory. That day still feels like a nightmare that I had never shaken. One part of you insists that this didn’t happen, it just, couldn’t be. Right? Yet as much as I tried to fight it, I knew that this was no nightmare, no matter how much I may have wanted it to be.

On that same night of June 27th, a candlelight vigil was held at what has since been renamed “Angel Hill”, referring to the Five Fairport Angels who had lost their lives in that accident. The vigil received a tremendous outpour of sympathy from the entire Fairport community. As a town of just over 5,000 residents, there were not just dozens or hundreds of attendees at the vigil, but instead there had to have been over 1,000 people sitting together, united at Angel Hill on that early summer night. United by a tragedy, an entire town stuck together and stood strong, allowing no heart to go uncomforted.

Angel Hill at Fairport High School with candles aligned to remember the Fairport Five Angels.

Sure, each and every one of those attendees knew that the healing process had just begun. We knew that the coming days and weeks would be far from easy. But more importantly, we all also knew that we were in this together.

- – -

In the coming weeks, the entire town of Fairport united like I have never seen before. As a community who holds relationships close and is centered around the high school, Fairport was now facing this horrific tragedy together. And when I say that, I stress the word together. It was not simply the families or friends of these girls that were grieving, but rather an entire community.

Funerals were held, and a memorial service was held in the gym at FHS. Just as the candlelight vigil had, the memorial service had drawn a crowd that had lengthy lines backed up all the way out the doors of the high school and well into the parking lot. The news of the tragedy made national headlines, even appearing on the front page of CNN.com. Tribute videos were made and memories were cherished more than ever before.

Former ESPN and Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman even wrote a column for ESPN.com concerning the Fairport tragedy. It was apparent that this tragedy was not one that just affected the entire Fairport community, but instead made waves and impacts around the country.

Later that summer, during their live concert in Rochester, N.Y., rock band O.A.R. even dedicated a song to the memories of the Five Fairport Angels. I remember being in the crowd for that show. Months had gone by and the healing process was still taking place. Yet with dozens of Fairport students in the crowd, you could feel a special atmosphere. Every single one of the concert-goers in that crowd united to honor the Five Fairport Angels. It was truly a special time.

The Fairport Angels armband.

In the fall of 2007, minutes before our first home game for JV football, the varsity football head coach met with our entire team. In his hand he held a bag full of red and white armbands, Fairport High School’s primary colors. Stitched on these particular armbands were the initials of each of the five angels. As a team, we decided to wear the armbands on our left arms, the side closest to our heart. As we walked on to the field sporting the new Fairport Angels armbands, I felt a sense of pride that I can’t quite describe. For that football game, for the rest of that season, and for every single baseball game I’ve ever played in since, I’ve worn that same armband on my left arm, paying tribute to those five girls. And to this day, I’ve still never washed that armband. Those memories will go untouched, uncleaned.

- – -

Five years after the Fairport tragedy, and here I sit. I sit here reflecting on that unsettling day in late June just years ago, considering all that has changed since then. On one hand, everything has changed. Yet on the other hand, nothing has changed. Fairport is still that same, quaint town where you’re truly never alone.

As I sit here in the early morning hours of June 26, 2012, I prepare for what the morning will bring. Wherever I go, be it online via Twitter, Facebook etc or whether I go in public, I’m sure one thing will be on everyone’s minds. In the time since that tragedy, the healing process has become easier. However, it never becomes ‘easy’, just easier.

While there is plenty of reason to be sad on this day, there’s also plenty of reason to smile. As my father once explained, deaths do not call for tears and heartbreak. Instead, you should spend your time reminiscing on the lives lived of the Five Fairport Angels. Surely, there was so much ahead in the lives of those five beautiful, bright young women. At the same time, they had accomplished so much and brought so much good to this world. Don’t dwell on what could have been or how much you miss them, but rather spend your time smiling and appreciating the memories those give girls gave to everyone they knew.

Perhaps selfishly, we want those five angels back here on Earth with us. We want to be able to erase this tragedy and continue living the way that we figure life should have been. However, there’s a positive to every situation. The Fairport tragedy did not just lead to the unification of an entire community, but it also led to those affected by the news now appreciating each and every moment.

Life really is such a fickle thing. Growing up as kids, we just assume that life goes on forever until we grow old and pass away, much like a fairy tale. However, reality constantly reminds us that life is the most fragile of all gifts, and that it can never be taken for granted. If any lesson can be learned from this tragedy, it’s this: Appreciate each and every moment you have alive and never hesitate to tell the ones close to you that you love them. Life is too short to live any other way.

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Comments
16 Responses to “The day Fairport changed forever”
  1. Judy Burmingham says:

    What a wonderful and well written article…I am crying my eyes out!! I was also there on that hill the morning after the accident. My daughter, Kelly Ludwig graduated with all 5 girls and cheered with 4 of them. All 5 girls were at our house 3 days prior to the accident celebrating there graduation. I can remember them all sitting around the chocolate fountain laughing and giggling and talking about college. Those were the last memories I have of those girls…I think of them often and miss them all!! Thank you for writing such a nice and reflecting arcticle on the girls. It is just what I needed for my heart on this 5 year anniversary.

  2. cheerdummy says:

    Reblogged this on Cheer Dummy and commented:
    An accident that struck the heart of my neighboring hometown never ceases to give me goosebumps.

  3. cheerdummy says:

    Hi Zach,

    I’m from East Rochester and I graduated from ERHS in 2008. Being from the town over, this tragedy hit home to me, as well. I cheered all throughout high school and recognized a few of the Angels through the Fairport cheerleading team; I worked in Pittsford Plaza with a girl who graduated in ’06 and was friends with the girls; and when I moved to Buffalo to go to college, my roommate was from Fairport and was close friends with a few of the girls, as well, Katie in particular.

    Your post was very well written. It’s nice to pay remembrance to the girls, as well as the entire Fairport community. In particular it’s nice to hear such an optimistic spin taken on a horrible accident.

    I reblogged your post onto my own. Thanks for taking the time to write such a commemoration.

    Katie

  4. Molly Huff says:

    Dear Zach,
    What a beautiful tribute to and for the girls. Sara and Emily Monnat were like my 2nd daughters, living just a few houses away and having kids the same age. I have known Sara from when she was 2 years old and Emily days after she was born. Our family and the Monnat’s were more then just neighbors but extended family. It was a tragic day indeed, and hard to think back 5 years ago. I am thinking about how I walked down to the Monnats to return a purse Sara loaned to my daughter for the prom that evening. I walked in the house and asked where’s Sara and her mom said she went down to the lake w her girlfriends. I thought what a great time she will have, never even thinking that I would never see or talk w her again. I can’t even begin to describe the pain and as you said nightmare that I woke up to early that Wednesday morning. Once again, I went down to their house but this time not to return a purse but to comfort my extended family and share with them my sadness and pain. Here we are 5 years later, and although it has been trying at times, amazing things have come out of this awful tragedy. Schools being built in Africa, beautiful jewerly being created, books have been written, and the joining of love through out this community. My son graduated w the girls and Sara was a big part of our lives, all growing up together. I often wonder where she and the other girls would be right now in their lives, but I know they are all watching out for us all, every so often letting us know they will never be forgotten. So on this 5 year anniversary of the ‘angels’ try not to remember the pain we all experienced that day and days after the accident, but more look around and appreciate all that we have and continue to spread the love to each other because after all love is the answer and these 5 beautiful girls were full of that.
    Peace and Harmony to all~

  5. Marilyn Congdon says:

    Thank you Zach! We are so grateful to live in such a wonderful community!

  6. buddad1957 says:

    I read, I shed tears. The words you couldn’t find then, you certainly found now. Thank you

  7. Lynette Kolb says:

    Wow! what a beautiful tribute to the girls and their families. This was beautifully written with such personal heartfelt thoughts. Amazing! :)

  8. Tracy Kenney says:

    Beautifully written, nice job Zach!

  9. stephanie shirely says:

    Zach,
    There are no words to express how this article touched my heart. It never stops amazing me how this accident brought the best out in our community and country. We received over 2000 cards,gifts etc from people who we had never met and more than likely will never meet. But were so very kind as to take the time to write a notes or send their prayers and good thought to us.
    Five years later Zach you still keep the girls in your heart as many other do. Thank you for writing this article and sharing it. Katie was the light of my life and I miss her more each day.
    The hole in my heart will never be filled, but thanks to people like you it helps to know that the girls will not be forgotten.
    Love,
    Stephanie Shirley
    Katie’s Mom Forever

  10. Sandy Monahan says:

    Zach,
    Thank you for the article. I am Katie’s aunt. We so much appreciate everything the Fairport community continues to do to remember the girls. Like you it is a day we will NEVER forget nor will we forget the girls and the happiness they brought to us. I wish you much success and know that life can only bring good things to a young man with a heart as big as yours. Keep the armband
    I know Katie is getting the biggest kick out of that!
    Thank you again for the blog and for sharing your thoughts with so many.
    Warm regards to you and your parents for the fine job they have done with you!
    Aunt Sandy

  11. Angela Monnat says:

    Andrew and Zach,

    Thank you for such a beautiful and well-written tribute to our Five Fairport Angels. It is the
    caring support of our family and friends like you in this community that give us strength and comfort. It is heart warming to know that five years later they continue to touch so many people and their memory lives on. Sometimes it feels like the tragedy was yesterday. Other times it feels
    like an eternity since I last saw Sara walk out our front door. Fairport is a very special place
    and I am so proud to live here and especially proud of the both of you.

    Love,
    Mrs. Monnat
    xoxo

  12. Mary Jo says:

    What an amazing tribute to the girls and so beautifully written. Nobel material… seriously. It has heart, love and fact. I am Katies Aunt and Godmother and I know she’s in heaven advocating for all of those who are so important to her.
    Love,
    Aunt Mary Jo

  13. Chris Keyes says:

    Zach,

    Thank you for this. You among others are what makes the Fairport community so great. Let’s continue to celebrate the lives of these wonderful girls.

    Chris

  14. Brian schrom says:

    Very well put zach, I remember that morning with the team and sitting on the hill, and wearing those arm bands. Like you said, a very special time and memories that will never be forgotten.

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