The snow fell harder the higher my car climbed.
About 25 minutes earlier that Friday afternoon, the police scanner in the office toned out a car crash “with possible entrapment” in Little Genesee. After a longer-than-anticipated drive, I approached the intersection of Daggett Hollow and Salt Rising roads, where a young volunteer firefighter stood guard against a backdrop of emergency lights.
The first traces of an approaching winter storm fell and melted on his helmet as he politely said emergency crews had no intention of letting me through to see the wreckage.
At that point, through no fault of their own, they likely hadn’t heard any more than I had about the death of 17-year-old Kolby Geffers.
Turning around with neither story nor picture and sliding back down the winding rural road, it was all too easy to envision a devastating crash. And the storm had only just begun.
Back at the office a couple hours later, Portville Fire Chief Jeff Latten dialed my extension.
“There was a fatality,” he said.
My heart dropped.
“Any identification?” I asked. Those two seemingly impersonal words never roll easily off the tongue.
“Not yet. The state police will release that information,” he responded. “It was a teenager.”
My heart dropped further.
These are the stories journalists are ready for, the stories that get our blood pumping. But still, documenting the saddest of realities can be a dreadful, exhausting trial of morality.
And, despite not being allowed to see the twisted wreckage, part of my memory will always remain at the intersection of Daggett Hollow and Salt Rising roads.
There was more soon to come.
Sunday morning came quickly and I awoke to my phone buzzing feverishly with text messages inquiring about a fatal fire on South Second Street. A colleague covering the fire had asked if the name Monica Greene was familiar. Even as an education reporter, it’d take a small bit of digging to know she was a 16-year-old sophomore at Olean High.
She died alongside her mother as their house burned to the ground.
My neighbor, Olean city firefighter Sean McLaughlin, was with the first crew at the fire. We crossed paths in my driveway later that cold, gray-skied afternoon. As we chatted, he flipped through pictures of the fire on his iPhone and recounted that day’s tragic events.
Fires happen. Deaths happen. But the first pictures, taken just minutes after arrival, were horrific — the house engulfed in bright yellow flames that were rapidly spreading to an adjacent house, with young Monica and her mom undoubtedly already dead inside.
Like countless other emergency responders who experience death on their watch, Sean would likely say part of his memory will always remain at the scene, 309 S. Second St., etched in time like a scar. The same could probably be said for my colleague, Chris Michel.
Then came some reflection.
In the course of one weekend, two area high schoolers were dead.
But who could forget St. Bonaventure University’s Tyler Davis and Alfred State College’s Eric Michael Green — 19 and 18 years old, respectively — who died unexpectedly in late November?
In the course of one month, four local students were dead.
And what about 16-year-old Westfield/Brocton football player Damon Janes, who passed away after a game against Portville in September?
That’s five local kids — not much younger than me — who had met an untimely demise in about three months. That may happen frequently elsewhere, but not here, at least not in recent memory. And there could be even more escaping memory that didn’t receive as much public attention, for better or worse.
Back to the present, I eagerly awaited Tuesday night’s Olean school board meeting. The board never fails to recognize tragedies, national or local, with a few heartfelt words and a moment of silence. I anticipated those words to be more poignant than ever after losing one of their own.
Board President Mike Martello said it perfectly.
“It’s been a couple times in a month-and-a-half or so that we’re starting off the meeting on a very sad note,” he said. “Obviously, everyone is aware of the tragedy that occurred the other day. There’s supposed to be a pecking order. Kids aren’t supposed to go first.”
Indeed. But they did. Most of them at the worst time possible, the holidays, though there’s never a best time.
I’ll speak for the community by saying our hearts break for the hearts that have already been broken.
Most of us will never know the life stories of Damon, Eric, Tyler, Kolby and Monica. Perhaps it’s best those stories remain untold beyond their families.
Because, while their souls have departed, that’s where their memories will live on.
(Contact reporter Kelsey M. Boudin at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @KelseyMBoudin)