CLIFTON PARK Nikki Wind spoke quickly into the microphone with a message from her big sister, Bailey Wind, who lay in the hospital at that very moment.
“I love Chris will all my heart and I don’t know what I’m going to do now. And I love Matt and Deanna too. I’m glad that we were happy and had a fun night together that night. Sixty-nine is mine forever.”
Nikki just barely spat out the last sentence she was reading, choking back sobs to get it out. Immediately, the crowd of nearly 10,000 attempted to choke back their own sobs. They failed. And the result was a guttural, all too real manifestation of emotion.
Chris Stewart wore jersey No. 69. Bailey, 17, was in love with Chris, the 17-year-old football player. And that’s one feeling that everyone seemed to know.
The thousands of community members who turned out to a candlelight vigil Tuesday night at Shenendehowa High School Athletic Stadium had known for two or three days now about Stewart and Deanna Rivers, the 17-year-old Shen seniors who died Saturday night in a car accident.
But Bailey Wind had only just found out. The Shaker High School senior learned Tuesday morning in the hospital, just several hours before friends, family, teachers, acquaintances and even strangers converged on the football field to mourn their deaths.
“They didn’t want to put stress on her because of the bleeding on her brain,” said Sarah Hoffman, a Shaker High senior who’s close friends with Wind’s close friends. “If she got more stress, somehow that could have impacted her function and she could possibly not have made it.”
Bailey Wind remained in serious condition at Albany Medical Center on Tuesday, three days after the horrific Northway car crash killed her boyfriend and her friend and injured her other friend, 17-year-old Matt Hardy.
At the start of Tuesday’s vigil, when crowds filled the 5,000-seat bleachers and thousands more lined the chain link fence surrounding the football field, when people were already sobbing openly and patting each other’s backs in comfort, a white ambulance drove up onto the field and opened its doors and lowered its ramp.
The crowd stopped mourning and turned suddenly jubilant.
“Matt! Matt! Matt! Matt!” came the chants, amidst the clatter of applause and stomping of bleachers.
Friends and teammates circled the vehicle, anxious to see Hardy, to know how he was doing, what he looked like, what someone looks like who’s been trapped inside an SUV that’s rolling over and over and over and stops in the middle of a busy highway.
They huddled around Hardy, who rolled out of the ambulance in a wheelchair, his leg in casts. Mariah Carey sings “Hero” over the loudspeakers and the crowd is roaring, overcome with a collective urge to celebrate those who made it out alive.
“I would just like all of us to take a step back, take a deep breath and smile,” said Brian Shellenback, his slow and steady voice echoing out from a microphone to an emotional crowd.
The Shen senior took a deep breath. He spent what felt like every waking moment of the past four years with Stewart, and he couldn’t fathom how this could happen. How could Stewart, the football player with a big smile, who loved to smile and make people smile, how could he be gone?
“It just makes his family and me and everyone who was associated with Chris, it will just make it all that much better if we just smiled and celebrated the life of such a great kid,” said Shellenback.
“He was so much to me. He meant so much to everyone. He lived with vitality. He lived with dignity. He lived with positive attitude. He would come to school every day with one mission and that mission was to put a smile on every student’s face.”
Remember that time, Shellenback said to his teammates, when we got back from our weight lifting workout this summer and made breakfast for everyone?
The incoming seniors on the football team recorded video from the day. Chris Miller had tried to flip an omelet, but dropped it on the ground.
“And the first person on the scene was shirtless Christopher Stewart, who picked up the omelet, gave it a good bite, thumbs up, said 'That was a hell of an omelet,’” recalled Shellenback. “That’s how I remember Chris, as just a kid who made it his mission to put a smile on everyone’s face. And I love him to death.”
Aside from being a great athlete — the kind who lines up against an opposing player, knocks them over, smiles, and picks them back up — Stewart will be remembered for loving Bailey Wind.
“They will love each other forever,” said Shellenback, sharing the insider knowledge that only a best friend can. “They will carry on in each other’s hearts forever, and I know that she will move on and carry on knowing that Chris loved her to death.”
When he finished speaking Tuesday night, Shellenbeck walked over to his best friend’s father and gave him a hug. The two stood locked in the grip for a long time, their eyes squeezed shut to keep back the tears.
Tears were everywhere at Tuesday’s vigil. The crowd was a sea of green of blue windbreakers, jerseys, scarves and ribbons. Huddles formed throughout the night where people gathered to hug and console crying parents, students and acquaintances.
Grace Hartl cried and she didn’t even know the students. Well, she explained, she had history class with Wind last year but other than that she didn’t personally know the two victims or two survivors.
“Shen has always been our big time rival and everything in all things sports,” she said, “But beyond that, we really respect them as a school and as opponents. And it’s just hard to see two great kids, you know.”
Her voice trailed off as her mind unconsciously avoided any words associated with “death.”
“All because of a stupid decision,” she picked up again. “And the scariest thing is that it could have been one of us. They’re young and they had a future and they did nothing wrong and it was ruined.”
Eyewitness accounts showed that Stewart, Wind, Rivers and Hardy had been coming back from a basketball game at the Times Union Center when Dennis S. Drue, 22, of Clifton Park, drove his car from the left northbound lane of the Northway over to the far right northbound lane at a high speed, striking the rear of the SUV.
Both vehicles veered off the highway. Stewart, who was driving the SUV, was shown to have no responsibility in the crash. Drue, who was treated for head injuries at Ellis Hospital and released, was given a breath screening that police say revealed the presence of alcohol in his system at the time of the crash.
Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said Tuesday that no charges have been lodged yet, as his office awaits the results of a toxicology report.
After the vigil had finished, country music star Carrie Underwood dedicated the song “Temporary Home” to the four students in the crash as she performed at the Times Union Center.
Some students remained on the football field after the candles had been blown out, sharing stories of their lost friends. In the night sky, high above the Clifton Park school, a green balloon holding a candle floated by.