Shenendehowa High School Senior Alan Gaines last saw football team captain Chris Stewart at the sectional banquet on Saturday.
Hours later, the burly 18-year-old lineman was trying to find a way of coping with the tragic death of Stewart and their classmate, Deanna Rivers. For Gaines, everything seems surreal: The horrific accident near Exit 8 on the Northway Saturday night; the pall that has since enveloped the school district; the outpouring of grief that continues to spread through the community following the fatal crash.
“It doesn’t really register yet,” said a glassy-eyed Gaines, who used to line up next to Stewart on the gridiron. “It feels like there has to be a rewind button somewhere that hasn’t been pushed yet.”
Gaines, who played football with Stewart since his freshman year, was among the droves of students who filed quietly past a makeshift memorial honoring the two deceased students in the high school auditorium.
He recalled Stewart as being the great leader who helped his team both on and off the field. And he remembered Rivers, a member of the varsity softball team, as a brilliant athlete in her own right.
Both were young with so much promise. Both gone in an instant after their vehicle was clipped by a speeding motorist one mile north of the Twin Bridges in Halfmoon.
“I’m going to miss them both,” he said.
Meanwhile, two passengers in Stewart’s 2000 Ford Explorer continue to be treated at the Albany Medical Center Hospital. Shenendehowa senior Matthew Hardy, 17, is recovering after suffering several broken bones, while Shaker High School senior Bailey Wind, 17, remains in critical condition.
The district has scheduled a candlelight vigil at 6:30 p.m. today at the high school stadium to honor the lives of Stewart and Rivers, and to offer support for Hardy and Wind. Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson was optimistic that both students will recover.
“But obviously, the road to recovery will be very long,” he said.
Stewart had just celebrated his one-year anniversary of dating Wind, while Hardy had been dating Rivers.
The four were heading home after watching the University at Albany defeat Siena College in basketball during a game at the Times Union Center.
Many pictures posted on social networking sites show the two young couples together, smiling. One foreboding picture posted on Facebook shows them attending a game at Times Union Center.
The state police probe into the collision also continues, though it’s unclear what charges the driver who they say caused the wreck — 22-year-old Dennis Drue of Clifton Park — will face. A preliminary breath test at the scene of the crash revealed Drue had alcohol in his system, but he hasn’t been charged with a crime.
Investigators are now analyzing a blood sample taken from Drue when he was being treated for minor injuries at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. They asked for the state police crime lab to expedite the testing, which can sometimes take upward of 90 days to complete.
“In short order we will know more,” said acting State Police Troop G commander Capt. Steven James in a statement released Monday. “We must do our job, which is to find out specifically what Mr. Drue did and under what circumstances.
If Drue’s blood alcohol content was 0.08 percent or greater, he could face counts of vehicular manslaughter, said Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy III. But the prosecutor declined to indicate whether he anticipates this charge being filed.
“[The state police] lab is one of the finest in the country, but they need time to do their analysis,” Murphy said in a statement. “We cannot charge based on emotion. We must charge based on facts and evidence. We must wait for the lab to give us the evidence we need. Then we can go forward with our case.”
Drue had a valid license and no alcohol-related convictions on his driving record at the time of the crash, according to records with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. But his license was revoked for nearly a year in February 2009 for having three speeding convictions within an 18-month period.
Eyewitness accounts given to police indicated that Drue was traveling about 75 mph in the far left northbound lane of the highway when he moved his 2004 Volvo across the middle lane and into the far right northbound lane.
Drue’s vehicle struck the rear of Stewart’s Explorer, forcing it to careen off the road and roll over several times.
The vehicle was crushed, killing Stewart. Rivers, a passenger in the back seat, was flung from the wreck and killed.
outpouring at memorial
At the school campus, rocked by the deaths of two popular students, there was quiet grieving. The memorial to Stewart and Rivers gathered so many students that it had to be relocated from an area outside the entrance to High School East into the auditorium.
Students paying their respects left photos of Stewart and Rivers taken throughout their lives. They wrote messages to them and left them near other icons from their lives: A varsity football jersey and helmet, an iPod, a snack bar, a softball sweatshirt.
Both students and teachers wore green after a message posted on Twitter suggested it as a tribute.
Football players wore their jerseys, while other students wrote numbers in marker on the backs of their hands: 19 for Rivers and 69 for Stewart.
“This was something so sudden and so tragic. I think people are trying to find some closure,” Robinson lamented as he watched students file by the memorial. “But how do you find closure after something like this?”
Shenendehowa students were joined in their grieving by their counterparts at Shaker High School.
The marquee outside the Colonie campus read “Shaker Shen United” on Monday, and students there were wearing green to support the victims of the crash.
Both Stewart and Rivers were considered immensely popular among their classmates. Junior Connor Chatterton, 16, recalled how Stewart was a role model to him and how he used to uplift others.
“If you saw him and you saw his goofy smile, you’d feel better,” he said.