Students came to Shenendehowa High School East on Sunday seeking solace from counselors and bearing tokens of affection to place in a memorial for fellow classmates Christopher F. Stewart and Deanna A. Rivers, who lost their lives in a two-vehicle crash on the Northway Saturday night.
State police blamed the driver of the other car for the crash, which sent that driver and two other students to the hospital.
Acting State Police Troop G commander Capt. Steven James, speaking at a news conference Sunday afternoon, said the accident occurred at 10:19 p.m. in Halfmoon, about one mile north of the Twin Bridges in the highway’s northbound lanes.
Stewart, 17, the driver of a 2000 Ford Explorer, and passenger Rivers, 17, both of Clifton Park, died in the accident. Both were seniors at Shenendehowa High School. Stewart was a captain for the varsity football team and Rivers was a member of the varsity softball team.
The two other passengers in Stewart’s SUV, Bailey Wind, 17, of Latham and Matthew T. Hardy, 17, of Clifton Park, were transported to Albany Medical Center for treatment of serious injuries.
A candlelight vigil will be held Tuesday to honor and support students involved in crash. Click here.
Wind is a student at Shaker High School, while Hardy attends Shenendehowa High School.
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said the students were driving back from the annual UAlbany-Siena Albany Cup basketball game at the Times Union Center in Albany.
According to James, eyewitness accounts revealed that Stewart was driving in the far right northbound lane of the highway when Dennis S. Drue, 22, of Clifton Park, moved his 2004 Volvo from the left northbound lane across the middle lane and into the far right northbound lane at a high rate of speed, striking the rear of Stewart’s SUV.
The impact forced both vehicles off the highway. The SUV careened off the road, rolled over multiple times and came to rest in the highway’s median, James said. Drue’s vehicle ended up on the right side of the road.
Wind, who was in the front passenger’s seat of the SUV, reportedly sustained serious injuries and broken bones.
James said Rivers, who was in the SUV’s back seat, was ejected from the vehicle.
Hardy, who was also in the back seat, sustained multiple fractures and was partially ejected from the vehicle, according to James.
The police investigation revealed that there were no culpable acts on Stewart’s part, and that he had a clean driving record.
A breath screening administered at the scene of the accident revealed a positive presence of alcohol in Drue’s system, according to James. Toxicology results are pending.
Should he be charged with DWI, Drue also may be charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter, James said. If his blood alcohol level registered lower than .08 percent, he may be charged with two counts of criminally negligent homicide.
Drue has no DWI convictions on his record, has a valid driver’s license and is the registered owner of the Volvo, but according to James, he “has a record involving speed, suspensions and revocations spanning back from 2008 up to 2011.”
In 2010 he was involved in an auto accident that caused property damage, James noted.
According to state police, Drue was treated at Ellis Hospital for head injuries and was released.
School offers support
The tragedy has shaken the tightly knit Shenendehowa Central School District. Superintendent of Schools L. Oliver Robinson said he met with the families of the deceased students Sunday morning and had plans to visit Hardy at Albany Med later that afternoon.
“The two students who unfortunately lost their lives were two wonderful students, two tremendous student athletes as well, so their reach is wide in terms of their interaction with many students, and so we’ll spend today trying to provide support to our students,” Robinson said at a news conference at Shenendehowa High School East on Sunday afternoon.
Counselors were on hand at the high school to lend support to students and will be available throughout the coming weeks.
The families of the students who were killed are struggling, Robinson reported.
“It’s a tough situation when you think about having your kids in their senior year in high school and going into the holidays. There’s never a good time but this seems like such a tragic time when you’re talking about kids who were truly in the prime of their high school career lives, coming off of great athletic seasons and looking forward to the college recruiting process and all the exciting things that you know as a high school person you look forward to and as a family you look forward to celebrating.”
Michael Wheeler, a senior at Shenendehowa who came to the high school Sunday, said he sat with Rivers in the library every day during lunch period.
“I helped her to apply to St. Rose on Friday, so that’s just kind of sad,” he said. “She was really outgoing and nice. She was a really good listener. She was just always there to talk to if you needed anybody to talk to.”
Praise from coaches
Shenendehowa girls’ varsity softball coach Dan D’Amboise, who coached Rivers, said she was a wonderful person who always had a smile on her face.
“She really brought enthusiasm and excitement to the softball team. The kids loved her, I loved her. She was really poised to be a big part of this year’s team as a senior,” he said. “She was exactly what we wanted in a student athlete. You couldn’t ask for anything more. She came with a positive attitude every day to the field, lifted everybody else up, a good student in school, a great citizen. This is a true tragic loss for the Shenendehowa Community.”
Chris Culnan, director of athletics for the district, said the loss of the two student athletes is very hard to process.
“We’re just trying to figure out a way to help support the families as best we can and figure out a way to help our students and our student athletes kind of cope with this tragedy,” he said, adding, “These were the type of kids that you’d always want taking the field and representing your school and your community. They just really were great kids. They were great teammates and great friends.”
Stewart’s varsity football coach, Brian Clawson, said one word comes to mind when he thinks of Stewart: “Love.”
“Chris loved everyone that was a part of his life. He loved the Shenendehowa community, Shenendehowa football; he loved his teammates, his coaches, his teachers, and in turn, everyone loved Chris because he had such a radiant, positive personality,” he said.
On the field, he was a heck of a player, Clawson commented.
“He had a tenacity about playing the game and trying to be the best football player that he could be,” he said.
Stewart was recently named a member of The Daily Gazette’s All-Area Football Team.
The district is encouraging students to memorialize their classmates at the high school and discouraging them from setting up a memorial along the Northway where the crash occurred, for safety reasons, Robinson said.
Junior Corey Drejas, who was at the school Sunday, played football with Stewart when he was younger.
“He was really nice. He was like a great leader, a perfect person that you wanted to be like,” he recalled.
He said Rivers was Hardy’s girlfriend.
“They were like perfect together,” he commented.
Brian Shellenback, a senior and varsity football player, said he was Stewart’s best friend.
“Chris, he can brighten up a room with his smile, his charisma, his personality. I just didn’t know one person who didn’t like him. He was just the best friend anyone could ever ask for, the most selfless person anyone would ever know,” he said.
Shellenback said he has been in contact with Stewart’s mother. She notified him at around 2 a.m. Sunday that her son had died.
“She’s a very strong woman,” he said.
Shellenback was also friends with Rivers.
“She was a heck of an athlete. She was a great softball player,” he said. “She was going to go on to do bigger and better things. Smart girl, real smart girl. She had a lot going for her.”
“It’s sad to see them go,” he said of his two lost classmates. “But it’s good to see that there’s so many people out there that cared about them, because they had such an effect on so many lives.”