On the morning of Sunday, January 13, 2002 Emily MacConnell (now Emily O’Rourke) woke up startled to the hysterical screams of her mother, “Nathaniel and Crystal are dead! Nathaniel and Crystal are dead!”
Dazed, she jumped from her bed and ran into her big brother’s bedroom expecting the sight of his big six foot five frame lying there to be the pinch that she needed to wake her from the unbelievable nightmare.
She stood in the bedroom staring blankly at the empty bed, reality sinking in as she became increasingly aware of the sounds of anguish coming from the first floor of the house. She ran downstairs, panic and shock overcoming her. Her two younger brothers, then eleven and thirteen years old, were sobbing uncontrollably.
Screaming, Emily turned to the stunned face of her father and demanded details. Nathaniel had been in a car accident on Tukey’s Bridge the night before. Leaving a party and in need of a lift home he was riding with his girlfriend, Crystal Young, his buddy, Jason Carr, and another friend named Mike O’Brien, who was driving.
The car had been traveling at speeds in excess of 110 miles per hour, heading north on I-295. The road has a bending incline as it rises over the entrance to Back Cove below. O’Brien, 19 at the time, had been drinking and was unable to negotiate the curve at the absurdly high speed. The car swerved at the top of the incline, hit the curb where traffic merges from Washington Avenue, and launched over the guardrail of the bridge, nosediving 30 feet to a jogging path below.
Nathaniel, Crystal, and Jason did not survive the crash. O’Brien was alive, but hospitalized and injured badly. He would eventually recover from his injuries and serve time for manslaughter.
Emily was unable to comprehend the reality that was setting in. In an email to me she explained, “I felt like I had to find him, but my father said we could not go to the funeral home until two o’clock. Not the hospital? The funeral home? What is he doing in a funeral home? He’s only nineteen.”
Nathaniel, known to me as Nate, and Jason, known as Jay, were fellow seniors with me at Deering High. Crystal, who I had gone to middle school with at Lyman Moore, was a senior at Portland High.
All three were popular, well liked kids with a lot of talent and potential.
Emily, just thirteen months younger than Nate, was also a senior at Deering.
Throughout the morning word spread around the community. I awoke to a call from a friend, I remember the blankness in his voice as he relayed the news. I shook my head in disbelief, “wait a minute, what?”
The next day at school, you could hear a pin drop in the normally bustling hallways as kids made their way to class. Those same hallways were just four months removed from the stunned silence they had experienced on the morning of September 11th.
It was a confusing time to be a high school student in Portland. We had been walking around numb since the second week of school as we tried to absorb the fact that the world as we had always known it was changed forever following the terrorist attacks.
Now, suddenly, we found ourselves confronted with tragedy on an even more unimaginably personal scale.
Unfortunately for Deering students the loss of a classmate was nothing new. In my class’s four years there we saw more student deaths than any other time in school history.
Death is a difficult thing to understand at any point in life, but high school and college aged kids are just beginning to realize their mortality.
As they had following the preceding passings of our other classmates, high school administrators made grief counselors available to students, but not many people spoke with them. I guess it was just too much for most of us to grasp. How could we possibly articulate the emotions and confusion sweeping over us?
The night following the accident, hundreds gathered at the site of the crash to hold a candlelight vigil. I remember standing there under the shadow of the bridge, just feet from the frigid January sea lapping at the shore. Bits of glass and stains of blood on the pavement served as a staggeringly stark dose of reality for many of us who had come there still in denial.
Emily remembers the scene at the vigil, “hundreds of people showed up. Elementary school teachers, old neighbors, parents of friends.. everyone. It was so touching to see how many people in our community cared for Nathaniel, Crystal, and Jason.”
As the winter months turned into spring the anticipation of graduation began to build. At school the attention was turned to things like prom and college acceptance letters. Even with all the excitement, it was difficult to ignore all the lingering sadness and confusion caused by the accident.
I had known Emily since the sixth grade. She had always been outgoing and funny. Following the accident I don’t think many of her classmates, myself included, knew how to treat her or approach her.
It must have been so hard for her to keep her head up and finish the school year, but she did it in quiet, determined fashion.
Anytime I saw her in school I smiled and said hi, but ultimately avoided any in depth interaction. I felt guilty for all the fun I was having as the sun set on my high school days. I imagine that was a pretty standard sentiment around school.
One day a couple weeks before graduation she decided it was time to clear the air. Her and her father wanted to speak in front of the entire student body to share their perspective. We filed into the gym completely unaware of the experience we were about to share.
There were well over 1,000 kids enrolled at Deering at the time. Emily bravely stood in front of us at the podium and eulogized Nate, Crystal, and Jay. She wept openly with her father at her side and told us of the horrifying heartache consuming her family. She spoke of the isolation she had felt since the accident, and forgave us for not understanding how to navigate the waters leading back to normalcy.
She validated our feelings of sadness and confusion, and she comforted us all in ways I am completely incapable of articulating.
The emotion in the room was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Sitting high on the bleachers, fighting back tears, I looked over the crowd of sobbing, dismayed classmates knowing that this would be an experience we would all remember.
Each year when January 13th rolls around there is an amazing outpouring of support and remembrance for Nate, Crystal, and Jay on social media. Not only do we remember the lessons learned from the tragedy, but we also treat their three memories with a great amount of respect.
Now married and expecting her first child, Emily lives with her husband in Arkansas where she is a high school English teacher. From what she says, the simple act of remembering can go a long way:
“I always remember the good memories first. I picture him smiling, or fishing, or going to junior prom. When I think of him I smile too and I know it’s not just me. So many friends have so many great memories of Nathaniel, Crystal, and Jason that make them smile too. I’m humbled even now, 12 years later, how personal and real this still is for everyone.”
There’s a saying, “time heals all wounds”. From talking with Emily it’s clear that the loss of her brother will sting painfully for the rest of her life.
Equally as clear is that our collective memories of the friends that we lost that fateful night help to give their surviving loved ones continued hope for eventually finding peace and acceptance within the heartache.
In the closing comments of her email to me, Emily expressed her gratitude toward the community for keeping those memories alive, “The loss of these three didn’t belong to just their families but to everyone, and I still see it today. In the end, whether I can remember the details or not, I know how much I loved my brother and how much he was loved by everyone.”
Let’s make sure we never forget.
Many thanks to Emily O’Rourke for helping me produce this piece.