The Colgate Scene
January 2001
Table of contents
Responding to tragedy
by Mark D. Thompson, PhD
  The shrill ring of the phone in the early hours of November 11 started the adrenaline flowing as I stumbled through the dark. These calls are never good. This one brought the worst news I've ever received in my 18 years in higher education (see "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage"). Could the "several fatalities and injured" beginning to penetrate my consciousness be the remnants of a horrible dream? The dispatcher's clear and calm statements, spoken deliberately and with an unmistakable sense of gravity, literally brought me to a knee as I took in the overwhelming news.

     At Campus Safety, members of the Dean of the College staff began to assemble. Dean Mike Cappeto provided the available but limited information. So many questions posed, answers painfully slow in coming. Who are the people involved? Are they (all) students? Are they ours? How did this happen? Perhaps one of the very few comforts was being with trusted and competent colleagues (and friends) as we responded to this nightmare. We established and separated fact from speculation and initiated a plan for disseminating the horrible news. The sun would be up soon; people would begin to see the accident site. Today the admissions staff would have more than 400 prospective students and their parents visiting campus. We would need to support them in preparing a response.

     We knew several students had either witnessed the accident or came upon the scene shortly thereafter. With some, our counseling staff had been able to intervene and "defuse," providing the opportunity to talk immediately about what they saw and how they responded, including the feelings encountered during this horrific experience. Others, unfortunately, had departed the scene before being identified. Knowing that the prompt processing of a witnessed trauma can help minimize the potential for post-traumatic stress complications only heightened our sense of urgency. It was important to reach as many of these students as possible.

     At 7:00 am, we sat in Lathrop facing a room full of Head Residents, RAs, and fraternity and sorority leaders. These incredibly capable student leaders would be the front-line responders. They needed to be prepared for the extraordinarily important role they would soon play. Their response to the devastating news was palpable, as though they had been punched in the chest and lost their wind. Many eyes filled with tears, including ours. For some of us, it was the first time we had actually allowed our emotional response to reach the surface. We outlined the range of responses students might exhibit to such a loss. We emphasized the importance of not making judgments about the way others responded; each of us may respond quite differently, in his or her own way and all equally valid. We stressed the importance of having students contact home, loved ones, and friends, both on and off campus immediately, as we anticipated a rapid spread of the horrifying news. With the identities of all those killed still not established, the prospect of hundreds being panic-stricken as they awaited a reassuring phone call remained quite real.

     Word spread quickly. It's not unusual for college students to sleep into the afternoon on the weekend, yet the Chapel was packed prior to the 11:30 a.m. community meeting. This large group was uncharacteristically quiet. They knew something was wrong. As Dean Cappeto began to report the tragic crash to those assembled, some sobbed uncontrollably; they had just learned that a friend, a hall mate, a teammate had died, or was injured, in a senseless and avoidable alcohol-related crash. Most were just stunned. As President Karelis would say at the next community gathering two days later, this kind of event happens at other places, not here at Colgate.

     The remainder of that day and the weeks to follow remain something of a blur. Numerous phone calls and conversations took place with those directly and indirectly affected. Some seemed especially devastated during these initial few days, including students who didn't even know Katie, Elke or Rob. We have encountered others, very close to our students involved in the crash, who seemed relatively unaffected at first. As the days passed, difficulties with sleep, concentration and sorting out conflicting feelings became more apparent. Meetings were conducted with hallmates and teammates to allow people to talk about their feelings. For many, sharing grief with others is a vitally important way get through such a devastating experience.

     At several times during the service celebrating Katie Almeter's life, I found myself looking around the chapel at the faces of the many people who had played a significant role in dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. Some provided comfort, several engaged in the most difficult conversations of their lives, and others contributed by connecting with the Norwich or Hobart and William Smith communities in preparation for the task facing them. I was moved by, and proud of, the care and compassion of our community, and wished with all my heart that we had not been put to this test because of the culture of alcohol abuse, both in our society, and here at Colgate.

     Finally, I find myself in absolute awe at the resiliency of the human spirit exhibited in the wake of such devastation. Katie's parents, Robert and Elizabeth Almeter, presented an invaluable gift to us with their presence and words of strength and comfort. The relationships shared within this family are inspiring. Along with their incredible faith, their enduring family love will be a primary source of strength that helps them survive their loss. When I arrived home, I hugged my two daughters a little longer than usual. Many aspects of my life will eventually return to "normal." Some, however, will never be the same.

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