Dozens gathered on the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Pedestrian Bridge in the pouring rain Sunday evening to remember the 20 people who lost their lives on the first anniversary of the devastating limousine crash that took place in Schoharie.
On Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, a stretch limo, transporting 17 passengers to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown, went through the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A at a high rate of speed and into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, where it fatally struck two pedestrians, before crashing into a ravine, killing all 18 people inside.
A permanent memorial built near the limo's final resting place was unveiled to family and friends of the victims, along with first responders, during a ceremony held on Saturday morning. The memorial officially opened to the public on Sunday.
Sunday evening’s service, organized by Amsterdam resident Chris Carpenter, was held in the same place as last year's memorial.
While hundreds of people packed the bridge to pay their respects last year, this year's turnout was smaller with only several dozen attendees. However, it made for an intimate, somber and tearful ceremony, sprinkled with moments of joy.
“Those we lost that day were cherished sons and daughters, loving moms and dads, beloved siblings and coveted friends to so many. It is important that we reflect on how the impacts they made in those roles continue to reverberate in this community via those they left behind. This is our way of honoring them, their families, their friends, and bringing together their communities and the cities they called home,” Carpenter said.
Comments made by victims' friends and family members along with those offered by elected officials all had similar themes: while the feelings of grief and loss still weigh heavily on their minds, good memories also remain.
Peter Rose, who officiated the ceremony, kicked off the service by noting that, while much had changed over the last year, Amsterdam’s promise to never forget the tragic accident had not.
“One year ago, we lost our families and friends. While the seasons have changed, the pain of loss and the pain of grief remains. Rather, I choose to focus on the seasons of love, which also has remained over the past year,” Rose said. “Amsterdam made a promise: that the love that enfolded this community one year ago would continue in the days, the weeks, and the months ahead. And we arrive here tonight knowing that we made good on that promise. Tonight, we gather here in hope, to love, honor [and] remember those we lost on October 6, 2018.”
Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa, who also spoke during the ceremony, agreed with Rose that Amsterdam would never forget the victims of the crash. Instead of focusing on sorrow, Villa vowed that he would go forward focusing on the joy that the victims brought to the lives of their friends and families.
“Tonight, I choose happiness, knowing that 20 souls rest in peace,” he said.
However, Villa also lambasted New York State for its failure to enact comprehensive reform for limousines in the aftermath of the tragedy, one entire year later.
“We still do not have comprehensive reform on limousine safety standards,” he said. “We cannot wait two, three, four, or even five years for this to happen.”
Colleen McHeard, a local teacher who coached or taught a few of the crash victims, suggested that people in the audience become involved in a charity or activity that could help the families left behind, particularly those with children. Most people, she said, think they have all the time in the world to live their lives. Last year’s crash, she added, proved that is not always the case.
“They were smart, kind, fun and full of life,” she said of the victims.
Through tears, Valerie Abeling, the aunt of Erin Vertucci, one of the victims, thanked those who turned out for the service. The past year, she said, has been extremely difficult to get through and oftentimes felt like a bad dream, she said.
“I can’t begin to tell you how truly hard it’s been,” she said.
But, she added, the strength of her community in Amsterdam has allowed her to move forward and begin to heal.
“I’m choosing to focus on how they lived and not how they died and in doing that I’ll never forget to smile,” she said.
Sal Fringo, who was friends with a handful of the victims, including newlyweds Amy and Axel Steenberg, said sharing stories about his friends throughout the year, and hearing new ones from others who knew them, has been heartening.
“Keep sharing these stories,” he said. “Don’t ever be afraid of sharing them too loud, or too often.”