The sun had just risen Sunday morning when two local families nailed the numbers 69 and 19 to two trees in the median of the Adirondack Northway, about one mile north of the Twin Bridges.
The families had been meaning to visit this site for some time. It was where the 2000 Ford Explorer that carried their children the night of Dec. 1, 2012, came to a stop, just moments after being rear-ended and flipping through the air. Christopher Stewart and Deanna Rivers, seniors at Shenendehowa High School, took their last breaths here.
Nearly a year later, after the shock of their deaths had dulled ever so slightly, their parents asked state police to escort them to the site.
Once there, they tacked the silver-steel numbers 69 and 19 to the trees, along with two bright yellow markers also bearing the teens’ jersey numbers. Then they placed their senior pictures and two custom-made stone memorials at the foot of each tree.
“When you travel north on I-87 just before Exit 8 on the left, you will now see tree markers in their memory,” Stewart’s mother, Regina, wrote on an “RIP Chris Stewart” Facebook page the day she visited the site. “A simple prayer or a quick hello to Chris and Deanna is always appreciated. It keeps them alive in our hearts and minds forever. We miss them so very much.”
By Wednesday, this post along with a picture of the roadside memorial markers had gained more than 2,350 likes, nearly 160 shares and 80 comments full of prayers and words of support from the community.
“It’s a site that has a lot of meaning to our families and something that is always going to be there for us,” said Mike Stewart, father of Chris Stewart. “It stirs up a lot of emotions every time we drive by it.”
It’s a familiar commute for many in the Capital Region, so it was hardly surprising that after the Dec. 1 crash that killed Stewart and Rivers and seriously injured two other teens, members of the community took to social media to express the sorrow they felt whenever they drove by the site of the accident. In the days following the crash, Shenenedehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson encouraged students to set up a memorial at the high school instead of the crash site for safety reasons.
It’s why state troopers had to escort the family at a low-traffic hour Sunday, said Mike Stewart, and why his wife followed up her Facebook post the next day with a warning to any commuters who might have the instinct to stop and visit the roadside memorial.
“Since that posting we have had many messages from caring community members and friends saying they would make a stop to the site now that they’ve been made aware of the exact location,” Regina wrote. “We beg you PLEASE DO NOT stop on the highway! It is dangerous! If you happen to look over and see the yellow numbers hammered into the trees just give the kids acknowledgement, but don’t slow down or pull over.”
Trooper Mark Cepiel echoed her warning, adding not only is it dangerous to stop along the side of the Northway, it is also illegal.
“It’s unlawful to stop along any highway like that,” he said Wednesday. “The event on Sunday was a rare event. We had emergency vehicle lighting on and made sure the situation was safe. We did it out of courtesy for the family, but we do not want the general public repeating that situation. We do not want another tragedy to occur at that site.”
Mike Stewart said while the yellow numbers posted to the trees are visible from the highway, they were never intended to be a distraction.
“They’re pretty small,” he said. “You never quite know what people are going to do. But for us, it was about remembrance, not distraction. It was important to the families.”