Arriving within minutes of calls that came in shortly before 2 p.m., the volunteers witnessed first hand the damage of the deadliest transportation incident in the country since 2009. They worked the scene as other volunteer departments, sheriff’s deputies, state police and eventually federal investigators arrived to share the burden. Between 15 and 18 volunteers from the Schoharie department worked the crash, staying on site until 4 a.m. Sunday morning.
“It was very traumatizing,” Schoharie Fire Chief Marty Pierce said Wednesday before a vigil for the victims and their families and friends at Schoharie Central School. “We did what we had to do to get the job done.”
The work took its physical toll on the volunteer crews, Pierce said. But the emotionally hard part came in the days that have followed the accident as the pictures and the stories of the victims have emerged. A middle school teacher. Newlyweds. Young parents. Close friends and close siblings. Engineers. A college professor. An Army veteran. A waitress and an artist. A state Senate staffer.
“That’s what’s really starting to take its toll on the volunteers,” Pierce said of learning more about the victims.
Wednesday’s vigil also took care to honor the region’s first responders. As the crowd sang "Lean on Me," some of the volunteer first responders stood together in the center of the school gym and huddled in a shared hug. Soon, others in the gym stood as well – a sign of solidarity and shared strength.
Dozens of family members and friends of the victims -- many of whom lived in Amsterdam where a vigil Monday night drew thousands to a pedestrian bridge across the Mohawk River -- sat in the front rows before a stage from where speakers addressed the crowd.
Kenneth Ponte of Seward was friends with about a half-dozen of the victims, who also knew each other. He knew them in college and when they worked together at Liberty ARC six or seven years ago, he said.
“They were all very close,” he said after the vigil. “Very outgoing, definitely willing to help, they were a tight bunch. They were just as tight back then.”
He said there were hardly words to describe what the past few days have been like.
“Shocked, just shocked,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
Faith leaders from a variety of religions spoke to the victims’ families and the hundreds of people gathered in support.
“We stand in your presence with anger, fear and helplessness,” Rev. Michael Meyer-Veen, a co-pastor with his wife of the Schoharie Reformed Church, said before leading the crowd in a prayer meant to buoy spirits with comfort and support.
“This tragedy fills us with questions that are as mysterious as the oceans and unanswerable as the language of the stars. Our questions taste bitter and their touch burns our souls,” he said.
“Holy one, comfort us,” came the crowd’s response.
Also directly addressing the victims’ families and friends, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said there may never be an answer to the question of why such a horrific tragedy happened, but she promised investigators and state officials would get to the bottom of how it happened.
On Friday, funeral services will begin for those who died in the crash. One of the first services will honor four sisters and their three husbands. They set out Saturday to celebrate one of their birthdays together; this weekend they will be laid to rest together.
Since the crash, thousands of people across the region have shown their support in ways small and big, from leaving flowers at a memorial to joining fundraisers that have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for funeral expenses and to support young children left without parents.