An instant after the jury foreman read the first guilty manslaughter verdict, Nauman Hussain’s girlfriend, Melissa Bell, let out a shriek. In the rows of seats to Bell’s right, families of the 20 victims killed in the 2018 Schoharie limo crash, clasped hands and cheered.
But, for a moment, Bell’s wail drowned out everything. As she buried her face in her hands and then raced out of the back of the courtroom, the oxygen seemed to travel with her.
Minutes later, Bell returned, still sobbing as the foreman continued reading the verdicts on all of the charges. All 20 of them guilty, each of them ensuring Hussain would face significant prison time.
Members of “the limo families,” as the victims’ loved ones are now known, looked over at Bell. They tilted their heads with sympathy. They were crying, too. At one point, Jill Richardson-Perez, whose 27-year-old son, Matthew Coons, died in the crash, passed over a box of tissues.
“My heart goes out to that young lady,” Richardson-Perez said outside the Schoharie County courthouse on May 17, the day the jury returned its guilty verdict. “My heart broke for her. How could it not? I wanted to go over and hug her. I really did.”
It was a striking amount of empathy displayed by a grieving mother toward the longtime girlfriend of a 33-year-old man sentenced Wednesday to serve 5 to 15 years in prison for his role in causing the death of her son.
Richardson-Perez was hardly alone in her openhearted response.
When reporters asked Mary Ashton, whose son Michael Ukaj died in the crash on his 34th birthday, what she was thinking as she watched officers place handcuffs on Hussain, she said nothing vengeful. In fact, she said the opposite.
“Honestly, I was saddened for him. I really was,” Ashton said. “As much as I want justice for my son, I still felt badly for him. I can’t tell you why.”
Steven DiMarzo is the president and CEO of Allied Wellness Collective and a Schenectady-based licensed mental health counselor who helps people cope with grief. He said compassion like this can be common.
“When we lose somebody in our life, we gain an immense amount of empathy for the other people who have had loss in their life. And I think that part of the grieving process, especially in a situation like this, is forgiveness,” DiMarzo told me.
The limo families may not yet be willing to forgive Hussain – and their justified anger came through during heart-wrenching victim impact statements delivered during Wednesday’s sentencing. But the empathy that several of the family members demonstrated while still dealing with such devastating loss is a tremendous show of personal connection that, frankly, inspires hope for humanity.
Out of such sadness, perhaps, more kindness can emerge.
In the end, we’re all just people. We’re all flawed and uncertain, doing our best not to break against every headwind we encounter. We’re each navigating the only way we know how — including when we’re grieving.
“There are a lot of models out there that talk about the stages of grief, and some are more detailed than others. But really what it comes down to is it’s different for everybody, and the process can bounce back and forth between different stages or phases,” DiMarzo said. “It’s not necessarily in a steady order.”
That’s precisely what we heard during the victim impact statements. We heard Ashton describe her anger. We heard Daniel Bogan, the brother-in-law of Brian Hough who was struck and killed by the speeding Ford Excursion outside the Apple Barrel, talk about the guilt he feels for having witnessed the crash itself.
“I saw the thing that caused so much heartbreak,” Bogan said.
We heard Sam Bursese, who lost his 24-year-old daughter, Savannah, describe the memory of the crash hitting him every weekend.
“It happens every Saturday at 1:55 p.m. I know exactly what I was doing, who I was with,” Bursese said.
More than four years after the tragedy, the memories for the limo families are still so raw.
Sheila McGarvey can still recall what her son Shane McGowan smelled like when she dropped him off for the birthday party and he rolled his eyes at the ladies, including his wife, Erin, taking so long to get ready.
“Shane didn’t smell of cigarettes, but rather a nice cologne,” McGarvey said.
This encouraged McGarvey. Maybe her son and daughter-in-law, who looked so beautiful with her hair glowing, were finally ready to quit smoking for good.
McGarvey said she still thinks of Shane whenever she drives home from work, the time of day when she would talk to her son on the phone.
But “you can’t love a memory, wrap your arms around it, and say, ‘I love you,’” McGarvey said.
You also can’t create new memories with those no longer here.
Bethany King, who lost four sisters-in-law, said her family’s holidays and celebrations now have a “gaping hole.” King’s mother-in-law still makes way too much food, hoping that the family’s missing members are about to walk through the door.
King, who stayed home to watch children during the planned brewery portion of the 30th birthday party, said the morning of the crash her family’s group text chain was abuzz as always.
“The messages were about who was wearing what, who needed to borrow this and that, where and what time for sure we were meeting up after the brewery,” King said. “We were supposed to be going to dinner afterward.”
At times, King said, she still thinks she hears the special ringer she had set for the text thread.
“But I know it’s just my heart wanting to hear it.”
What King said she can never unhear are the screams of her husband and mother-in-law as they learned that four of their sisters and daughters had died.
“The scream of your girlfriend on the day your verdict was read will still be drowned out by the screams of my mother-in-law finding out her babies are gone,” King told Hussain. “The screams I had to hear while telling my family the news are still so piercing and will always be louder.”
And, yet, in the prayers she gave during her statement, King included Hussain and Bell.
“As mad as I am, I am going to include the defendant and his family in this,” King said. “I pray that we all feel peace throughout the days. I pray that we find value in all that we do. I pray that comfort is placed upon us and strength is shared when we need it the most.”
DiMarzo, the grief counselor, said we should imagine grief as a cell that gets bigger as it radiates away from its nucleus.
“The ultimate goal is not making the grief smaller, but growing around it. Life grows around the grief,” DiMarzo said. “The question is, how do we continue on with that grief still there?”
After the sentencing, with Hussain taken back into custody, Bell sat hunched over on a bench. Her hands clasped the back of her neck and tears dripped down her nose. Beside her, the limo families collected their things as they somberly chatted.
The entire courtroom was saturated with grief.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.