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 that Sgt. Tate Colburn of the Ontario County sheriff’s department referred to as “the worst accident we’ve ever investigated.”
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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.
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.
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 back 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.