Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 31, 2003|Volume 31, Number 16














Yale Community Unites in Grief
For Victims of Tragic Accident

Members of the University community united as they grieved and consoled one another in the formal and informal gatherings that have been held in the aftermath of the tragic highway accident that claimed the lives of four Yale College students.

Kyle Burnat '05 of Calhoun College, Andrew Dwyer '05 and Sean Fenton '04 -- both of Davenport College -- and Nicholas Grass '05 of Pierson College died following the early-morning car accident on Interstate 95 on Jan. 17. Five other Yale students were injured in the crash, some seriously.

News of the tragedy spread quickly throughout the campus. President Richard C. Levin, University Secretary Linda Lorimer, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, masters and deans in the residential colleges, and other senior administrators met to plan how to help the families of the students involved and to support the Yale College community.

"Words cannot convey how deeply we in the Yale community grieve over the loss of these four talented young men," said President Richard C. Levin. "We pray for the full recovery of the survivors, and we embrace, with all the warmth that is in our hearts, the families and close friends of all the students involved in this tragic accident."

The survivors of the crash are Zachery Bradley '05 of Saybrook College, Cameron Fine '06 and Christopher Gary '06 of Calhoun College, Brett Smith '06 of Ezra Stiles College and Eric Wenzel '03 of Jonathan Edwards College. All of the students in the car were members or pledges of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon.

At press time, Smith and Wenzel were still in critical condition at area hospitals. The others have been released and are recovering from their injuries.

The accident occurred at approximately 5:20 a.m. at the Fairfield/Bridgeport border. The students were in a sport utility vehicle that was traveling back to New Haven from New York City. Burnat, Dwyer and Fenton died on Friday morning. Grass died the following day at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport. (See related story.)

The crash is under investigation by the Connecticut State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). At a news conference on Jan. 24, the NTSB announced that icy road conditions, unapproved jersey barriers, and malfunctioning street lights on the stretch of highway where the accident occurred were factors in the crash. The NTSB also indicated that alcohol was not a factor.

On the Friday evening of the tragedy, hundreds of students and staff members gathered at a somber vigil in the Payne Whitney Gym's John J. Lee Amphitheater to mourn the deaths of their classmates and friends.

Brodhead addressed the mourners at the vigil, saying that the day was "as black a day" as he had seen on campus during his long tenure at Yale.

"The fact of death always seems to come as a fresh surprise," he said. "Death can shock us even when it comes to people in their 80s or 90s. But these were the most shocking kind of death. They came out of the blue, to people in their prime -- people just like you, with their whole lives before them."

A moment of silence followed Brodhead's reading of the names of students who died or were injured.

"We brought you here for an education, but unfortunately a day like this gives you an education we never intended to give you," Brodhead told students at the vigil.

Athletes honor former teammates

Participants in the vigil included members of the University's football and baseball teams, who came to mourn their lost or injured teammates. Kyle Burnat and Nicholas Grass were pitchers on the baseball team, and Zachery Bradley is an infielder for the team. Sean Fenton had played football during his freshman year; and Cameron Fine, Christopher Gary, Brett Smith and Eric Wenzel are all current members of Yale's football team. Wenzel also plays lacrosse.

At the vigil, many Yale athletes paid tribute to their dead or injured teammates and friends by wearing blue and white ribbons. Athletic events scheduled for that evening were cancelled.

Thomas Beckett, the University's director of athletics, acknowledged that while Yale's sports teams were hit hard by the tragedy, all members of the campus community were shocked and saddened by news of the accident.

"This is a very close-knit community, not just the student athletes, but all of Yale College," Beckett is quoted as saying in the New Haven Register. "When you have a tragedy like this, it affects the entire community."

The vigil that night, Brodhead said, was just the first of a series of campus gatherings that would begin a long process of coming to terms with the tragedy.

Finding solace with each other

Following the vigil, students assembled in the homes of residential college masters and deans. University administrators encouraged students living off-campus to eat free of charge in their residential college dining halls over the weekend so they could find solace with friends and classmates.

University Chaplain Frederick J. Streets and staff affiliated with his office comforted students at various campus gatherings and in the Chaplain's Office in Dwight Hall, which was open throughout the weekend. Coaches in the Athletics Department also held open office hours in Ray Tompkins House throughout the weekend so that student athletes and others could drop by to talk about the tragedy.

Likewise, the Yale University Health Services (YUHS) provided day and evening walk-in counseling for several days following the tragedy. The Mental Hygiene Department continues to offer individual counseling sessions for students wishing to discuss the tragedy and their feelings of grief. Students are welcome to drop by the department's office on the third floor of the YUHS, 17 Hillhouse Ave., or to set up an appointment by calling (203) 432-0290.

Support groups, which students can join at any time, are being offered at YUHS every Monday and Wednesday at 8 p.m., up to spring break, says Dr. Lorraine D. Siggins, chief psychiatrist at YUHS. These will take place on the third floor of YUHS.

Siggins says that Yale's residential college system proved "enormously helpful" in the University's response to the tragedy. "Because of the residential college system, students already had a community in place; masters and deans in the colleges were able to meet with their students and provide opportunities for them to come together." Counselors from YUHS, she notes, also serve as liaisons with each of the residential colleges, and were helpful in addressing the specific needs and issues of each college. YUHS counselors also worked with and advised coaches in the Athletics Department.

In a message to members of the Yale community posted on the Yale website, Siggins offered a list of some common emotional reactions to such a tragedy. These, she said, include initial shock and disbelief, as well as anger, guilt, feelings of helplessness, difficulties eating and sleeping, and recollections of previous traumas. On the site, she advises those affected by the tragedy to spend time with others and to structure their time, and said it is important to recognize that a whole range of feelings are likely to be experienced.

"During this time, you will need to balance two different tasks," she said in her message. "One is to continue the routine of your daily life in the face of these losses. The other is to allow yourself time to experience your grief and to spend time with other people."

Siggins says it is important for the community to recognize that everyone reacts to tragedies in their own ways.

"There is no 'right' way to respond," she notes.

Siggins has also consoled some students who did not know any of the victims in the accident and felt their feelings of grief or upset were not "legitimate" in comparison to those felt by others who knew the students who were killed or injured.

"Even though one may not have known the victims personally, it is very common to feel upset when something like this happens in a community," Siggins stresses.

Remembering the victims

Hundreds of members of the Yale community gathered at Battell Chapel on Sunday, Jan. 19, at a memorial service for Sean Fenton, who was from Newport Beach, California. The service was arranged by Fenton's family.

Memorial services will be held at future dates on campus for Kyle Burnat, Andrew Dwyer and Nicholas Grass. Yale officials arranged for free bus transportation for students and other members of the University community to attend the funeral services for Mr. Dwyer and Mr. Grass, held in Bedford, New York, and Holyoke, Massachusetts, respectively. Yale also assisted a group of students, as well as baseball coach John Stuper, to attend a memorial service for Mr. Burnat in Atlanta, Georgia.

The families of the four Yale students who died in the accident have designated funds and schools to which memorial contributions can be made. (For further information on these, see the related story.)

Lorimer noted that in spite of their own pain and loss, the members of all the families of the deceased and injured students have "shown extraordinary generosity as they have reached out to connect with and comfort each other in their shared time of sorrow."

The Athletics Department is sponsoring a blood drive in honor of the accident victims 10 am.-3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 2, in the Lee Amphitheater, Payne Whitney Gym, 70 Tower Pkwy. The drive is being coordinated by the Red Cross of Southern Connecticut. The public is invited.

Further information about this and other activities honoring the accident victims is available at www.yale.edu/opa/.


Yale Community Unites in Grief For Victims of Tragic Accident


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