Thursday, March 22, 2007

Campus Tragedy Never Forgotten

Hearts still mending, 20 years after sorority tragedy
By Errol Castens

The first dogwood blooms and greening grass decorated the early spring afternoon two decades ago as about 50 members of the University of Mississippi's Chi Omega sorority chapter made their annual fundraising trek along State Highway 6.

That Thursday was the kind of day you might want to remember forever, if the circumstances had remained idyllic.

"For those of us closely involved, March 26 never loses its significance," said Mary Ann Fruge, who was Tau Chapter adviser when tragedy struck that day in 1987.

For Dr. Thomas J. "Sparky" Reardon, his life was forever marked by the moment. "It was probably one of the toughest things I've ever had to deal with," recalled Reardon, then Ole Miss' associate dean of students.

"It's one of those indelible times in your life. There seems to be a special clarity about it."

As in previous years, the Chi O's had begun their walk-a-thon for the Kidney Foundation of Mississippi at the McDonald's restaurant in Batesville, taking turns walking and riding toward their house on the University of Mississippi campus, 23 miles to the east.

But this time, tragedy lay in wait just a few miles shy of home.

Robert Lee Davis of Senatobia was towing a hay baler eastbound on the highway. His white Ford flatbed truck overtook the walkers and the blue Nissan Maxima that served as their escort. Although he was reportedly within the speed limit and could see several hundred yards ahead, Davis crashed into the Maxima, and both vehicles plowed into the line of walkers ahead.

The injured screamed in pain, the uninjured in horror.

To this day, the memory is so harsh that survivors contacted by the Daily Journal chose not to speak about it.

Retired teacher Ellen Wright was one of the first motorists to arrive after the disaster. She told the Oxford Eagle in a report from that day, "It looked like somebody had taken a handful of toys and threw them up in the air and strewed them everywhere.

"Wright raced with a friend to nearby Williams Antiques to call for help in that pre-cellphone era.

C.L. Keen, who had waved at the women as they passed his house just minutes before, went to help and found himself mostly helpless.

"I couldn't do anything," he recalled days later as he talked with a Commercial Appeal reporter. "I'll tell you what I would have given $100 for a wet towel, just to bathe their faces.

"Two young women died on the scene.

Several survivors were taken to Oxford-Lafayette Medical Center, now Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi, and some reportedly went to a hospital in Jackson.

Those injured worst were taken to Regional Medical Center in Memphis. Before another day came and went, three of them would die.

Today, friends of all these students are starting to buy reading glasses and look for the occasional gray hair, but Margaret Gardner and Robin Simmons of Tupelo, Elizabeth Gage Roberson of Greenwood, Ruth Hess Worsham of Corinth and Mary Pat Langford of Atlanta are forever young.

In Tupelo, Margaret Gardner and Robin Simmons are forever remembered by a home for girls that bears their name, The Gardner-Simmons Home.

Anne Cochet was working at Dr. Glenn Hunt's obstetrics clinic in Oxford less than a block from the hospital when they heard a mass of sirens."He put his instruments down and told me he was going to be gone," she said.

"All the doctors in town were called in.

"Dr. L.G. Hopkins was one of them."We didn't keep count of the injured; they came pouring in," said the now-retired general practitioner. "Every physician who was in town responded, and we just took care of people until they were all taken care of."

Cochet phoned her husband, who pastors College Hill Presbyterian Church, and met him at the hospital.

"We saw people experiencing great anguish," the Rev. Alan Cochet said. "It was also a time when we saw people asking very hard questions what, why, how that come in the midst of tragedies like this."

I was personally blessed by the tender pastoral care that I saw from other pastors and the campus ministry people, loving and listening and praying and comforting seeing Christ in the midst of the crisis."

Back at the Ole Miss campus, officials including then-Chancellor Gerald Turner started phoning the families of victims, both dead and alive.

As if things weren't frantic enough, the campus' phone lines went out."

Down in the Delta, someone had (accidentally) cut major telephone cables," recalled Dr. Judy Trott, then-dean of students. "We couldn't give any information out (to the media) until we had notified the families, and it took them five or six or seven hours to get the phone lines fixed."

Roughly a third of the Chi-O's had been on the walk. The others gathered at their sorority house, shocked and grieving.

"Total hysteria spread when we found out there were over two fatalities," said DeDe Dunlap, then a Chi Omega from Ridgely, Tenn. "I didn't know how to feel at first."Trott maintained her presence at the Chi O house.

"The girls didn't know what to do, either," she admitted. "I did what I could to keep them calm, reassure them that everything was being done that could be done."

As word spread of the tragedy, expressions of sympathy and support began appearing both locally and from across the nation.

Keen, who lived near the wreck site, erected five white wooden crosses at the scene, giving people a place to focus their grief.

A permanent stone marker stands there today, started by a $200 donation and a challenge from a local businessman.

"Flowers kept coming in and coming in," Trott said. The Chi Omega house filled with them. "Finally I had to call the florists and ask them to stop bringing them."

Reardon, who also provided an adult presence at the sorority house, was one who spent much of the night arranging a memorial service first planned for Fulton Chapel, then moved to the Tad Smith Coliseum to accommodate an estimated 4,000 people who would attend.

By the time the memorial began at noon Friday, "There was a program, there was an organ, there was a program printed," he recalled.

"Gerald Turner was really wise to bring us together at that point. "The chancellor, who was also a professor of psychology, warned students that adrenaline had sustained them thus far, and that when the shock subsided they must not let down their support for those most affected.

"We must provide a loving, supporting community for those who have been touched by this tragedy," he said. Paraphrasing William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he added, "You can, you will and you must endure, and then you must prevail."

Prevailing would take a while. With funerals for four of the five victims being held on Saturday and Sunday, it was a somber weekend on campus.

Then-ASB President Nancy Horton apologized for the quiet atmosphere to the more than 500 visitors who had come for the usually raucous Spring Visit Weekend. A few fraternities and sororities previously had scheduled dances but found them subdued. The annual Greek Games were canceled."What was so profound and surprising was the ripple effect of how it affected students who did not know the girls at all," said Susan Eftink, then a counselor in the Department of Student Development and now a professor of social work.

By Sunday after the wreck, a crisis counseling team arrived from the National Organization for Victims Assistance, a group that had been born in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a California McDonald's.

"Within those first few days, there were so many students who needed help," Eftink remembered. "Then we found we needed to work with the EMTs and people at the hospital, then people in the community who knew no one involved: It brought up past losses that they'd had. We tried to provide services for the whole community.

"The clergy continued their work as well. In 1987, the Rev. Duncan Gray III, now bishop of the Mississippi Diocese, was rector at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Oxford.

"People deal with traumas in different ways," he recalled last week. "I listened to a lot of stories of friendships." One complication, Gray said, was guilt and confusion heaped on survivors.

"A lot of them were dealing with things that had been said right after the accident that this was God's will and that it was a sign for people to get their lives together pretty quickly," he said.

It took a summer break before Ole Miss was its normal energetic self again.

"The whole campus, for the rest of the semester, didn't feel right," Eftink assessed.

Dr. Jean Jones, then director of student development at Ole Miss, told the Daily Mississippian a few days after the tragedy, "We are all victims in some way of this horrible event, but we are getting things in place so that we can go on with our lives."