Reporter recalls tragedy a year later


I was walking through what felt like a fog.

That’s about the only way I can describe walking throughout the Seymour High School parking lot on Aug. 26, 2018, for a prayer vigil.

The area was completely silent except for the cries of people who embraced each other and gathered for the event.

I remember the stunned look on people’s faces as they stood in a semicircle near Bulleit Stadium and groups of people hugging and holding each other.

Sunday marks the first anniversary that four youths were killed in a tragic late night accident in Cortland. Five others were injured.

At this point in the day, I was already physically and emotionally exhausted. My co-worker, January Rutherford, and I had been working on the details of the story the whole day, and it was by far the most challenging assignment in my eight years of journalism.

We had asked our design team to give us a 7 p.m. deadline, which is about four or five hours later than usual for a Sunday, so we could include the vigil in our coverage.

I remember walking closer to the entrance of the football stadium, which is where people had gathered. I saw a woman embrace a junior high-aged girl and took a photograph.

As I went to ask them their names, I realized it was Brittany Watson’s mother, Jackie, who January had just spoken with an hour or so before, and Nevaeh Law’s sister, Madaline Kerkhof.

Brittany and Nevaeh were two of the teens who died in the crash.

“Oh no,” I said as I stared over Jackie’s shoulder and felt tears well in my eyes. I just took a photo of a grieving mother and sister, and the emotion of that moment and the day got to me.

The photograph, in my opinion, illustrated the day and defined the tragedy because it showed so much loss and grief, which is what so many felt.

I returned to the newsroom, and January and I finished the story and filed them before going home.

I tried to process what happened, but it was difficult for me. The next two weeks were the most difficult of my professional career.

Our staff wrote a lot of stories over the course of the week, and each interview I did, I could hear my voice shake.

One year later, I still think about Jenna Helton, Martin Martinez, Nevaeh Law and Brittany Watson. I think about what they would have become, how they had a whole life ahead of them and also about their families.

It’s not a day or period of time that I will ever forget.

The day was challenging because the sheriff’s department, which was investigating the crash, did not release many details on the wreck as they continued to investigate. I tried to update the public on the crash, while January bravely told the stories of who these young people were by speaking to their parents.

I remember talking with then-Sheriff Mike Carothers, who ended up simply reading the police report to me over the phone after I told him I needed the information right away to make our deadline.

At that point, I had been filing updates as often as I could throughout the day. I first found out about the wreck when I woke up Sunday morning.

I knew it was a bad wreck and that I’d have to call police at some point.

I still went to church, and afterward, I went to my in-law’s house for breakfast and made my first call to police, who told me the devastating news that youth were involved.

It was around 11 a.m. that Sunday when I went into the office and met with January.

We set out throughout the day to try to complete our work, occasionally discussing how we could not believe how heartbreaking the news was as we received it.

The last interview January conducted from parents was with Jackie. I remember January finally breaking emotionally after the call, her fourth to a grieving parent.

January is my co-worker but also a dear friend, so I walked behind her and put my arms on her shoulders to give her a hug.

I stood silent before saying, “We have to keep going.”

One year later, after speaking to some of these family members again, that’s exactly what they have done. They’ve bravely kept going with strength.

They’ve felt more anger, loss, grief, sadness and hopelessness than anyone should.

I want them to know that Brittany, Jenna, Martin and Nevaeh will never be forgotten because I think about them often, and I know so many others do, too.

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