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Graduation, a road trip, a tragedy. How four young men from Milford High became everyone’s sons.
When you’re a police officer with three decades on the job there are things you know from experience.
On a beautiful afternoon last summer, Joseph Peptis, an investigator with the New York State Police, was driving back to the station when he heard the dispatcher call for an ambulance at the New York State Thruway’s 200-mile marker.
"They said a car had rolled," Peptis recalled. "And when they said 'Multiple persons ejected,' I knew it was going to be bad."
Peptis arrived at the scene in minutes. An eastbound quad-cab pickup truck had rolled across the median and into the westbound lanes. One teenager was on his feet, with barely a scratch on him. The rest of it was as bad as Peptis had feared. But something about the chaos wasn't what the veteran crash investigator expected.
"We knew at the scene," he says. "There were no drugs, no alcohol smell. And the things from the car—camping equipment, a guitar. You see things and you know. You could tell these kids were great. They just made the one enormous mistake."
On Wednesday, June 23, 2004, Mark Fischer, Ryan Robinson, Craig Newton Starkey and Tyler Linne—four friends from Milford High School—set off on a trip to Maine with the blessings of their parents. Halfway there, they had a terrible wreck. One of them walked away, two of them died, and one of the young men was horribly injured. All four families have had to put their lives back together, piece by piece, rebuilding themselves in the face of death and the pain of survival. In the process, they've learned how many people can be touched by one enormous mistake.
"I was the kind of parent who would practically research your family lineage before I'd let my child go over to your house after school," says Sherry Fischer, 51, from the comfortable family room of her home in Miami Township. "Out of context, I can't believe I would allow it."
The "it" in this case was the trip that her son, Mark, started talking about in the winter of 2004. The idea was to take a two-week vacation with three friends—Ryan Robinson, Craig Starkey, and Tyler Linne. Mark was 17 and a junior, but Tyler, Craig, and Ryan were seniors. The trip would be a graduation celebration of sorts, the last chance to really hang out together before college claimed them. Sherry had met Craig's mother, but not the other parents, even though all their kids attended Milford High School and lived not so very far apart in Clermont County subdivisions.
But it didn't matter that Sherry and her husband, Ron, 52, didn't know the parents. "I knew these boys," says Sherry. "I had absolute trust and faith in them. I never thought of saying no because of who they were."
They were an interesting mix. Mark, Ron and Sherry's middle child, was a little guy—short, thin, and teetering on insecurity. But when he met Craig Starkey in a newspaper class his sophomore year, things began to change. Craig's maturity and self-confidence buoyed Mark's self-esteem. "The friendship made Mark believe in himself," Sherry says.
Craig was confident and thoughtful, a cheerful nonconformist whose interests spanned everything from Boy Scouts to writing poetry. With his goatee, flannel shirts, and beat-up jeans, Craig moved through the world with ease. He was comfortable in his own skin, which is not a small accomplishment for a teenager, though apparently he'd been that way from childhood. "On the first day of school, he hopped on the bus and said 'See ya!' " says Craig's father, Gerry "Butch" Starkey, 44. "He had everything under control."
Craig was the glue that bound together a group of seniors that included Ryan and Tyler, and eventually Mark found himself spending time with them, too. Tyler, quick and funny, was an artist who had been drawing constantly since kindergarten. He also had an uncanny musical ability, a fact that his friends were only vaguely aware of. One day Craig went to a music store where Tyler was buying a new amp for his guitar. He came home amazed. "Dad," he said to Butch, "he could pick up anything and play it!"
Ryan was more reserved—a big guy who played right guard on the Milford football team and the only jock in the group. Because Mark was such a small fry, the boys joked that Ryan was his bodyguard. Whenever Sherry fretted about her son's safety, Mark would say, "Mom, nobody's going to mess with Ryan."
Hanging out tends to cultivate the rip-and-run tendencies of some teenagers, but these four liked to keep things mellow. When the seniors weren't tied up with their part-time jobs (Ryan worked at Blockbuster; Tyler at LaRosa's; and Craig, the outdoorsman, at Nature Outfitters in Milford), they'd show up at the Fischers' and crowd into Mark's bedroom with videogames, or hang out in the family room, playing poker and endless rounds of Risk. Or they'd go the Starkeys' and watch cartoons, visit with the family's younger children, or talk. If the seniors felt indolent, Mark would goad them into activity like a pup yapping at their heels, and they'd be off to play Frisbee golf or catch a movie. And when Mark hung back and felt uncertain about some fresh challenge at school or on the social scene, Craig was there to talk it through. You can do it, he'd say to Mark. You're The Man.
Parents spend a lot of time fretting about their children's friends. When they realize that they're spending time with good kids, it's a huge relief. And when they see their children showing every sign of becoming responsible adults, parents become a little more willing to give them the opportunity to be adults.
It was Beth and Pete Robinson who first suggested that the boys take a trip after graduation. "It would be a way of marking their friendship before they went their separate ways to college," Pete says. No surprise, the boys took to the idea; they had big notions about where they might go and what they might do.
"But budgets being what they are when you're 17," Pete recalls,"they decided maybe it would be fun to go to the cottage."
The cottage has been in the Robinson family for years. It sits on Pemaquid Harbor, midway up the coast of Maine, a 20-hour drive from Cincinnati. Pete, 46, who was joining the humanities department at the College of Mount St. Joseph in the fall, was going to spend most of the summer there with the Robinsons' daughter, Sarah, working on his dissertation. The boys could drive to Maine and use the cottage for a few days, then set off for camping, hiking, canoeing, sightseeing—whatever they wanted. Craig had canoed the state's Allagash River wilderness once and was eager to go back. Tyler had always wanted to go to Maine, and Mark was just excited to be going along on this adventure with his friends. In a couple months, Ryan would be enrolled in engineering at the University of Cincinnati, Tyler would be studying industrial design at the Columbus College of Art and Design, Craig would be writing up a storm at Ohio University, and Mark would be knee-deep in Advanced Placement courses at Milford High. But first there would be two weeks in Maine.
The Starkeys offered the use of their Nissan Frontier pickup truck, and all the boys practiced driving it. They agreed in advance that they'd take the wheel in two-hour shifts, with the person in the passenger's seat responsible for keeping an eye on the driver. They even decided to rotate seats each time they changed drivers, to keep everyone alert.
"Good foresight," says Pete Robinson. "A good plan."
On Tuesday before the trip, they packed the truck up to the gunwales. There was camping gear, fishing tackle, clothing, and cases of root beer. Tyler brought a camera and the guitar that he was building with his father, figuring he'd find time to work on it. Craig tucked in his journal so that he could write on quiet evenings. And each of the boys brought a passport; in addition to the canoeing and hiking and hanging out, they were counting on spending a couple of days in Quebec.
The plan was to sleep at Craig's house and leave early in the morning. Pete and 14-year-old Sarah Robinson had already headed for Maine, splitting the trip into two days, so only Beth, 45, was home when Ryan left for the Starkeys' that evening. She reminded her son to be careful, stay alert, and wear his seat belt. He teased her about her anxiety. "Well, I don't want to get a call from Albany saying there's been an accident," she responded. Ryan went to the Fischers' to pick up Mark, where Sherry issued her own maternal advisory.
"We were standing outside, and they were so polite," she recalls. "It was 'Don't worry, Mrs. Fischer,' and 'Mom, I've got Ryan; nobody's gonna bother us.' They were just so tolerant; they let me finish my whole neurotic speech. And then I said, 'OK, I feel so much better.'"
Meanwhile, Lisa Linne, 46, was double-checking to make sure that Tyler had emergency contact information. Lisa and Jeff, 50, Tyler's father, were leaving in a few days on a mission trip to Uganda. If anything happened, Tyler needed to be able to reach them. She tried to impress the importance of this on him. "Mom," said Tyler with a smile, "what could happen?"
The next morning Sharon Starkey got up at 4:30, crept past the boys sleeping in the family room, and drove to a bakery in Goshen for fresh doughnuts. She woke them at five o'clock, and they were soon laughing and joking over breakfast. Sharon, a mother of four, had always enjoyed having her oldest son's friends around, and sending them off on this trip was a special treat. "Around 5:30 or 6, I watched them all climb into the truck," she says. "All those happy faces."
They talked and laughed, toggling between the radio and a trove of comedy and music CDs. They drove north through Columbus and Cleveland, then followed 1-90 as it skirted Lake Erie and headed east into New York. They rotated drivers as planned: Craig first, then everyone else had a turn, then Craig again. When it got warm in the truck's cramped cab, Mark, sitting in front on the passenger's side, stripped off his T-shirt and kicked off his shoes. The Robinsons touched base with their son as the afternoon wore on. Pete called from the cabin, where he and Sarah were getting things opened up and aired out, then Beth called from her office in Cincinnati, then Pete called again from Maine. Pete alerted Ryan to road construction around Worcester, Massachusetts, and they talked about how perfect the day was—clear from Cincinnati all the way to the coast. When Pete said good-bye to his son, it was 4:20.
At this point in the trip, Tyler and Ryan, sitting in the back seat, had unzipped their seat belts. So had Craig, who as at the wheel. At about 4:55, the truck drifted onto the rumble strips on the shoulder, quickly swerved back on the highway (overcorrecting, investigators would later surmise) then flipped. It rolled hard—seven or eight times, all the way across the high weeds in the median and into the westbound lanes—and as it rolled, the impact peeled back the roof of the cab.
The truck came to stop on its side. Inside the cab, Mark Fischer, who never lost consciousness during the accident, found himself hanging from his seat, held in by his seat belt.
"I said, 'Is everybody all right?' " Mark remembers. "And there was nobody there but me."
Bad things happen and we need to know why, to learn the lessons and heed the warnings. When something so bad happens to someone else's children, we're tempted to use the "why" like a talisman to ward off evil. And so a story about a trip to Maine becomes a cautionary tale about three teenagers who weren't wearing seat belts—"the one enormous mistake," as Joe Peptis put it. Seeing it this way allows us to believe that this terrible thing would never happen to us, to our children. Why? Because we'd warn them. Why? Because they'd remember. Why? Because... because... because those boys and their families are not us.
But we've all made those singular, enormous mistakes, and so we know that the only thing that separates them from us is chance, circumstance, luck. That's what an accident is.
Pamela Esposito-Bidwell, a psychiatric nurse with the New York State Office of Mental Health, was driving from her home in Buffalo to Albany with a male colleague that afternoon. They were a few car lengths behind the truck when it happened. "It was such a beautiful day," she says. "It was surreal."
She pulled over and the two of them leapt our of the car and ran toward the wreck, arriving as Mark emerged from the truck, barefoot and shirtless. There was luggage and camping equipment and soda cans everywhere, and two bodies—Craig, laying on the median, and Ryan, in a westbound lane. Esposito-Bidwell's colleague raced to protect Ryan, waving his arms wildly to stop traffic. Esposito-Bidwell knelt next to Craig and began searching for a pulse. Mark saw Ryan, then Craig, but couldn't see Tyler. He heard people around him talking about "three boys." "I said, 'No! There are four of us,' " Mark recalls. "They hadn't cut the grass in the median and nobody could see Tyler. It was like he was completely gone. That's when I got panicked."
If you believe in miracles, you can find a couple in this: No other vehicles were involved. And here's another: The cars that squealed to a stop as the truck went hurtling through the air included, in addition to Esposito-Bidwell and her companion, two trauma nurses and several off-duty police officers. The trauma nurses took over, beginning triage on Tyler, Craig, and Ryan, while Esposito-Bidwell led Mark away from the scene. "All I could do is take care of him as if he was my own child," she says. "And I knew that if it was my kid, I wouldn't want him to see this."
Sherry Fischer, driving back from spending the day in Lexington, got a call on her cell phone a couple minutes after 5. It was Mark. There'd been an accident—that much she understood—but the rest was confusing. Suddenly she heard Pam Esposito- Bidwell's voice. "She said, 'Your son is fine, but I have to tell you that this is very serious,' " Sherry recalls. In case there was any doubt about how serious, Pam told Sherry they couldn't talk any longer; later she learned they had to get off the highway so that a helicopter could land.
Sherry reached Sharon Starkey; Sharon called Lisa Linne. They had no information about where the boys had been taken, only that there had been an accident somewhere west of Albany. Beth Robinson, arriving home from work, had no idea that anything was wrong. She ate supper, then noticed the light blinking on the answering machine in Pete's study. The first message was from an ER nurse at the Albany Medical Center. "My world stopped," Beth says.
The frantic parents began piecing together scraps of information. Mark was OK, and Ryan had been taken about 70 miles away to Albany, where he was in critical, but stable, condition.
The hospital didn't have any information about Craig or Tyler, and they didn't know what had happened to Mark after he made the first phone call. The Linnes called directory assistance, and a supervisor helped them track down scores of hospital names and telephone numbers. They called and called, but no one could tell them anything. Around 7, Ron and Sherry learned that Mark was waiting for them at a small community hospital in Little Falls, New York, close to where the crash occurred. About the same time, the Starkeys had the answer they feared. Craig, who didn't have his wallet in his pocket, was listed as a John Doe at Bassett Healthcare in Cooperstown. Despite the trauma staff's heroic attempt to save him, he had died two hours later. Not long after that, a local police cruiser pulled into the Linnes' driveway and an officer got out, carrying the final, heartbreaking piece of the puzzle that ended the Linnes' desperate search. Tyler had been declared dead at the scene two hours before, but protocol dictated that they be told in person.
Joe Peptis called both families, explaining the circumstances of the accident. "We asked, 'What do we do now?' " Jeff Linne says. "And he said 'There's really nothing you can do up here. We know everything about the accident. We know the boys.'
"He was very nice," Jeff says. "He just got a sense of them and he expressed that to me. They were good boys. He seemed to understand."
At midnight, Pete Robinson arrived at Beth's brother's home in northern Massachusetts. His plan was to leave Sarah there and continue on to Albany alone. But his sister Ellen had driven in from New Hampshire and was waiting for him. "I'm going with you," she announced. It was 3 a.m. when they arrived at Albany Medical Center. Pete's brother, Jim, was already on the scene.
When Beth arrived on the first flight into Albany the next morning, she joined her family and was updated about the horrifying damage to her son's body. Ryan had a broken clavicle and shoulder blade, four broken ribs, a lacerated spleen, and a ruptured bladder. His pelvis was broken in three places, both lungs were collapsed, he was on a ventilator, and there was a gaping wound at his knee with detached ligaments and tendons. Most critical of all, he had suffered a serious head injury. It had taken nearly nine dramatic hours in the ER and in surgery before Ryan was stable enough to be moved into the pediatric I.C.U. That's where he was when Beth arrived—alive, but in a drug-induced coma with a cranial probe monitoring the swelling in his brain.
Mid-morning, Pete was called out of the I.C.U. and into a nearby hall. There, with hugs and tears, he met Sherry and Ron Fischer for the first time. The couple had driven all night to reach Mark at Little Falls Hospital. "We arrived at five in the morning, and he was standing straight up in the emergency room with nothing on but a pair of shorts," Sherry says. "He looked at us and said 'We have to go see Ryan.' " So they found him some shoes and a jacket, and drove another hour to Albany.
"We tried to prepare Mark for the worst," Pete recalls. Ryan was alive, but he was a mass of tubes, monitors, bandages, and wounds. "When he got in there, he said, 'Ryan, man, you look great!'" Then he stood at Ryan's bedside, talking to the inert form of his high school bodyguard, urging him to fight. "We drew such strength from him," says Pete.
The Fischers stayed in upstate New York until Sunday Joe Peptis spent time with them, taking them to the Cash site and to the wreck itself to collect the boys' personal effects. Then they went back to Ohio, and to the immense sadness of a whole community.
Jeff Radloff, the physics teacher at Milford High School, remembers standing, stunned, in front of |his house as a student delivered the news. Four boys from Milford had been in a terrible accident in New York, and the four names landed like hard blows: he knew every one. "It was a shock," he says. "And it's still a shock."
Radloff and others used the school's "phone chain" and called everyone who knew the boys. People wrote cards, letters, and e-mails for Ryan, and a teacher took a detour from her vacation to drive to Albany and deliver the greetings to the hospital. Even though it was summer break, the school arranged to bring in counselors for students. Teenage traffic deaths and injuries are too common; it was only June, and the Cincinnati Enquirer was reporting that there had already been at least 21 local teenagers killed in crashes in 2004. But being a fact of life doesn't make it any easier. Teachers, struggling to help their students cope, were devastated.
"I'm not saying it's like being a parent and losing a child," says Radloff. "But the kids we have in class are our children for a year or two. We are family here." Like a father facing an empty chair at the dinner table, everyday Radloff looks across his classroom and remembers where Craig and Tyler sat. "It's still hard," he says.
The staff at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, where Tyler, his parents, and his brother were members, set up 500 chairs for Tyler's memorial service, then 50 more, then watched the church continue to fill. There was art and music by Tyler everywhere, his mother sang and his father spoke, and the family stood in line for two and a half hours as people stopped to pay their respects. At Milford First United Methodist, the Starkeys' church, the crowd spilled out onto Main Street. The high school choir sang, and Craig's teachers and friends shared their memories of Craig.
Mark was prepared to speak, too. "Knowing that it was going to be difficult, I made myself notecards," he says. "I'm a pretty good speaker. [But] halfway through notecard number one of, like, five, I couldn't even spit out the words." After the memorial services. Mark says, "I just insulated myself from a lot of it and chilled." But he took it upon himself to mow the Robinson's lawn during their long stay in New York.
"He said it was his therapy," Pete recalls. "Doing Ryan's chores."
Ryan spent five perilous days in a coma while the swelling in his brain subsided. When the sedation pump was finally shut off, the Robinsons were told that Ryan would soon "start to emerge." But no one told them what that meant, exactly. "Piecemeal, we began to learn," Beth says.
Still basically unconscious, Ryan thrashed and struggled wildly. Grandmotherly volunteers generally monitor children under such circumstances, but that wasn't going to work with a "child" Ryan's size and strength. So his parents pulled 18-hour shifts at his bedside to keep him from yanking out his tubes and sensors. When he first attempted to talk, he could only repeat numbers over and over, like a computer trying to re-boot. At first he could only see from one eye; then his vision of everything was turned 180 degrees, like a funhouse room turned on its side.
Ryan was in the I.C.U. for two weeks, followed by two and a half weeks in the trauma ward. He was treated by an army of specialists, each leading a platoon of young doctors on rounds. When he was still in I.C.U., a nurse had told the Robinsons that with this kind of a head injury they didn't need to worry about him getting worse: he'd improve, or he'd stay the same. And so at each juncture, Beth and Pete would try to read what they could into the symptoms and into the doctors' reactions. How would his life be redefined if he was like this forever?
During their month-plus stay in Albany, Pete and Beth rarely left the hospital, sleeping in the intensive care ward for two weeks and virtually functioning as part of Ryan's nursing team. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, made bearable by the kindness of the staff and volunteers, by Ryan's constant improvement, and by cards and letters from friends. At Hixson, the de- sign and engineering firm where Beth works, colleagues sent around e-mails to keep everyone informed about Ryan's progress; staff at Playhouse in the Park, where Pete had been public relations director for 13 years, e-mailed his friends in the arts community.
"People felt so bad that we were so far from home," says Beth. "They let us know that we weren't alone. We recognized that we were part of a community. There were people praying for us all over the globe."
Ryan has no memory of his first two weeks in the Albany hospital. He says that he remembers driving through upstate New York, then waking up in a strange room with the walls covered in cards and letters. "I thought, 'I should be in the truck with Tyler and Craig and Mark,' " he recalls. "I was just in the truck." He asked his parents what happened and where his friends were. When Pete told him that Craig and Tyler were "being taken care of in a better place," he understood.
A month after the accident, Ryan, flat on his back, made the 12-hour ambulance trip from Albany to the Drake Center in Cincinnati. He spent two weeks at Drake, in physical rehab—"all upper body work," he explains. There was more surgery, then on August 6 he came home on a stretcher to a hospital bed set up in the family's dining room. He had an external stabilizing rod bolted to each side of his pelvis.
In September, when the pelvic stabilizer came off, he was able to begin more comprehensive therapy. The first time he sat at the leg press, he was only able to press 50 pounds. "Before the accident, I could do 500," he says. The physical therapy—which plenty of people find excruciating—didn't bother him at all; it reminded him of training for football. But the accident had left him with a stutter. "Sometimes at night I'd worry: What if I can't talk again?" he says. "But I'd think, well, what can I do to help myself with this?" He suggested to his parents that he'd like to try speech therapy.
He worked hard at it, and now the stutter has faded to nothing more than a thoughtful pause in the conversation.
By late November, he was back working his part-time job at Blockbuster. In January, he started taking classes at U.C.'s Clermont campus. If you saw him working out in the gym today, you could not fathom what he's been through.
"When I see old friends, they're amazed at how well I look," he says. "At work, they didn't expect me back for a year." He says that he is astounded at what happened to him and his friends, and at what his family has done for him. "I've become closer to my parents," he says. "They were there for me and I want to pay them back. And I'm closer to Craig and Tyler and Mark's parents."
In the aftermath, the four families, who barely knew one another a year ago, have become friends. When the Fischers, the Linnes, or the Starkeys talk about Ryan's remarkable progress, they're as grateful as if he were their own child. When the Robinsons, the Starkeys, or the Linnes talk about Mark's senior year, they're as proud and protective as if he were their son, too. They seem to be ready to share in the future of the young men who lived, just as they share the memories of the ones who died.
What they don't share is the blame, because they have decided there is none. Pete Robinson describes the accident simply as "an error of judgment on the part of an inexperienced driver." He says that he is "at peace with the fact that it could have been any of the boys."
"Accidents happen," says Jeff Linne. "All four families are similar in that respect. [We] don't have anger. It's hard enough to miss Tyler. To be angry would make it unbearable."
Mark is still processing what happened, but he feels confident about the "why." "I have since taken physics class and I understand the physics of what we did. A completely packed back of the truck: it was a very top-heavy car. Craig just over-steered. "It happened," he says firmly, "because of physics."
Pamela Esposito-Bidwell, the nurse who was first on the scene, has kept in touch with the Fischers. She wants to know how Mark and Ryan are doing, and she's made a point of learning all she can about Tyler and Craig. She says that she's still struggling to get past the horror of that awful afternoon. Soon after the accident, she and her colleague got together and burned items of clothing they'd worn at the accident, hoping their ritual might put the worst of the memories to rest. Still, she says, "I think about it every day."
What she did that day on 1-90 had nothing to do with being a psychiatric nurse. "My whole role was to be a mother, nothing else," she says. "I would hope that someone would do the same for me and my kid."
The accident has stayed with Joe Peptis, too, "I was in a shoot-out one time, but this has affected me more than anything else in my career," he says. "I felt so sorry for the families. You could tell these kids were great. They were going somewhere."
After so many months, the permanence of the loss has sunk into the community. At Milford High School, students, faculty, and parents are planning an outdoor classroom as a memorial to Craig and Tyler—a place where teachers can take classes to study nature, draw, write, or just talk. For the families, it's still a day-by-day proposition. "It comes in waves," says Pete Robinson. Once, months after, simply pumping gas brought back the hellish night he drove from Maine to Albany, not knowing if Ryan would be alive when he arrived.
For the Linnes, there is the comfort of faith. "Tyler had received Christ and we know we'll see him again," says Lisa.
"Knowing that has an element of peace in it," says her husband. "But it doesn't change the grief."
Butch Starkey finds comfort and delight in reading his son's journal with its bold title—The Book of Craig. But he knows why Sharon involuntarily moans each morning before she gets out of bed. "It can be challenging to feel powerless to take away the pain," he says. "But Craig's spirit was 'Seize the Day.' So...you just move forward."
Today, if you happen to meet Mark Fischer when he's sitting down, the first thing you notice is that he doesn't so much stand up as unfurl, getting taller and taller before your eyes. Ron Fischer says that his son has grown a lot in the past year; the little guy that Ryan Robinson used to bodyguard is now 6'2". Ron says that as a father, he has protected himself from thoughts of "what if?" "For me, seeing Mark in the hospital, getting a hug... I put the rest of it behind me," he says. "What would it have been like if it had been Mark? I don't even go there."
His wife doesn't have that power of emotional self-preservation. She thinks about it all too often. "Two boys died. Ryan came close. And Mark has been changed forever," she says. "I want there to be a lesson I can understand, a reason. It just doesn't make any sense."
But most of all, she says, "I just want them all back. Laughing and driving to Maine."
Originally published in the April 2005 issue.
Illustration by Maria Rendon