(I hesitated to write this post because I realize that my experience is shallow compared to what many of my friends and peers experienced. However, it felt very therapeutic to finally write down and release my memories (if you will) of that day. Once I write something down, I give myself permission to only remember it when I want too. So please understand that I do not write this to gain sympathy, but just to remember that day and the events surrounding it.)
It was April of my senior year of college. I had literally 4 weeks of school left and I would be forever done with classes for the rest of my life now. (I still had a semester of student teaching left to go and who knows, maybe I will finally get that Art History degree someday down the road).
I was feeling pretty good….great actually. I had just come off a very high weekend: On Friday, I had finally completed and presented my senior art show (decadence) that I had sweated through many, many hours of work on. My family had driven up for the special occasion and we had over seventy people come through Reade Hall that evening. On Saturday, my friends and bridesmaids had thrown me an epic shower. One for the record books.
The air was finally starting to warm up and you better believe I was already working on my summer wedding tan (yes, the neighbors did refer to me as “that one girl who is always outside tanning”). What three weeks I had left in my classes seemed pithy compared to the monumental show I had completed and they required little outside work. I had a scant three months until our wedding day (!!!!) so all day long visions of ivory buttercream and apple green flowers were dancing through my head. I was a few days shy of heading to Chattanooga where my wonderful family would throw N and I a much-anticipated family shower. It felt like the long, long chapter of academia was coming to a beautiful and appropriate close. Soon I would be moving on to a new and exciting life of marriage and all the wonderful things that lay ahead. In short: the days felt easy/exciting/breathable/fresh/wonderful/new for the first time in a long time..
But those carefree days were all too short-lived and shortly followed by one of the worst days of my life.
It was April 26, 2006. My roommate had left that morning to head up north with another housemate to attend her bridal shower (yes, I was far from the only one dreaming of wedding dresses and color schemes at the TAJ). For some reason–maybe it was just because our house was 2 members short that day–it seemed like campus was starting to thin out. Inside, I could feel that little, nagging discouragement that had plagued me since the beginning of senior year: that this was all ending. Maybe it was that sadness, or maybe it was a premonition of things to come. My away message conveyed something along the lines of, “It’s already starting to feel more empty around here.” which turned out to be really dark and confusing for my out-of-state roommate a couple of hours later.
After a full day of classes and sunning what not, I decided to turn in “early” which I think was around 10:30pm (oh, college days). It felt like I had just fallen asleep and was therefore very confused when another housemate entered my room. “Hey K, I think you’re going to want to wake up. There’s been an accident. They think some Taylor students were involved.” You know that icy cold panic that grips your heart when you first learn of terrible news…it was there, along with my foggy brain trying to make sense of what she had said. We padded into the living room and turned on the local news. There were the images—terrible, terrible images—of a smashed up fifteen-passenger van, police lights, shocked news anchors, strewn wreckage. My housemate told me that it was speculated to be either a Real Life (student ministry) van or a banquet van. She already knew of one supposed victim’s name who would have been involved in either of those scenarios.
This was all so surreal. Our house was empty other than us. Where was everyone? As my foggy brain struggled to make sense two more girls entered and told us there was a campus-wide prayer meeting at the chapel starting soon. I ran to check my email: sure enough, that was the only bit of news. No other details. I hurridly checked every single away message I could (although Facebook had been around for a few months at that time, AIM was a much more “reliable” source of news as people updated it more currently). Most statuses hadn’t changed in the last hour or two. Some vaguely called for prayer. And that’s how I knew there had been a real tragedy. Not because everyone was talking about it, but because no one was. I started to get the sense that being in an off-campus house meant we were removed from the mayhem that was possibly slowly encroaching on campus. I couldn’t help myself: I checked her away message hoping against hope to see something bright and cheerful: I don’t know why everyone’s so worried. I’m totally fine guys! 🙂 Instead I found a message about serving a banquet. Hadn’t been changed in hours. Oh, God, was this really happening?
We crammed into the chapel at the appointed time. You couldn’t help but look around and take note of who was accounted for. It didn’t take me long to find my sister and her wingmates. Breathe. N and his housemates were there too. Breathe. Snatches of conversation…rumors floating around. Rumors that were probably more likely true than not on a small campus like ours. One of N’s housemates was getting text updates about a girl who had purportedly been badly injured. Dear God, I knew her too. “She’s in a coma right now, may have brain damage when she comes out of it. No one really knows at this point.”
The room finally hushed into an eerie silence when the President approached the microphone. “Dear students, there has been a terrible accident. We have lost five people. One was badly injured. We cannot tell you their names until all of the families have been notified. Please join together and pray. But before we do that, please call your parents. We’ve had so many parents calling the school, wondering if you’re okay, that we can’t open any phone lines.”
Cell phones were passed around, families were called. My sister told me she would take care of informing our parents, who were likely in bed, unaware in another state and time zone that anything of this magnitude had happened. When she returned, I asked her how the conversation had gone. She told me that she had assured them that we were okay and they had asked if she had seen N. “I told them I had seen him here too.”
And then we prayed. We didn’t know what to pray for, but one by one, students stepped up to the open mic and cried out to God. Someone led us in a round of “It is Well with my Soul”. Hymn after hymn followed. Every once in a while, the room would quiet as one of the “higher ups” would step up to the mic to give us more information. At 2am, we were still all packed in there, waiting and dreading the news. Wondering what could be taking so long as the accident had happened hours earlier.
Finally around 2:30am, someone who we hadn’t yet heard from came to the mic. We all sensed this was going to be it. He said with a very heavy heart that he could finally tell us the names of the victims. First, he told us the name of the injured student: that she was still alive, in a coma, had been life-lined to Fort Wayne. It was still early, but it looked like she just might survive this.
And then one by one, with long composing pauses in between…as if each name was a sacred script, he read the remaining five names. After each dropped name, there was audible wailing and people collapsing to the ground in grief. It felt like a horrible nightmare. Or a scene from the Old Testament. Never in my life have I heard wailing and mourning like that.
Five people. Five whole people who had walked campus with us just that day were gone. Five people who were deeply connected on campus and loved by many. Each name was familiar: a friend, a classmate, an ex, a sister, an employee. Our campus was so small that not one could have gone unknown.
Soon after the names were read and more prayers were offered, we left the chapel.
And then life stopped for about 4 days. Classes were canceled. News media encircled us. Funerals were coordinated and attended. The weather was bright and beautiful but there was a palpable, somber mood lying heavily on everything. People brought food over to our house that remained untouched. Condolences poured in:
I am saddened to learn of the loss of several members from the Taylor community, and I pray for a full and speedy recovery for those hurting. I hope that each of you will find comfort in your faith and the love and support of your family and friends.
Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathies. Please know that you are in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.
May God bless each of you.
Sincerely, George W. Bush
I watched people go through various stages of grief. I rubbed my friend’s back as she dry-heaved in the grass outside of our house. We are just so sad. For a while that is all we could properly say when asked.
The rest of the school year was a blur. That heavy mood remained mostly until graduation. Sure there was laughter again at some point on campus. And classes had to go on (although I think everyone was at least given the option to pull out at that point and have their grades stand). But everywhere you looked the signs of mourning were still there. It was in the faces of the students and professors and staff. It was in the art shows that were still to be presented. It was in the emails to the events that still had to go on. While we rejoiced at our graduation accomplishments, our mood was tempered by the ever-present state of loss that was constantly surrounding us in big and small ways. You simply cannot rip six people off of a small campus and not expect the loss to be detrimental and far-reaching.
After graduation, I could not wait to get the H out of there. I was tired of grieving. Tired of loss. Tired of the heaviness. I was ready to shed those layers and return home and wed N and move on with life.
The one bright spot in all of this was that the injured victim was pulling through. Her family kept a blog and we daily checked in on it, learning that she was starting to show signs of communication and recognition. We needed her to pull through and be the victory in all of this. We needed someone to rally behind and we desperately needed her to walk away from this. Despite the fact that there were some odd dots, no one connected them. There wasn’t any reason to even go there. And 2 weeks after graduation, the hope that we felt towards her situation would be ripped away from us and replaced with an entirely new set of emotions that we were in no way prepared to deal with. I honestly feel that that story is not mine to tell but I’m sure by now you know how it ended.
These situations make us question God and wonder why. What good could possibly come of this? We may never know in this lifetime or the next. But at the end of the day, I still trust that my God is good and just and fair. And that He is in control.
Whenever and wherever this story is told around the world, the LORD’s name will always be praised. No matter what, that is how this story ends.