Too soon: Remembering the victims of the deadly Saugerties car accident

Left to right: Jonte Clark, Kaireem Meeks, Dante Crump and Adam “Jeff” McQueen

Left to right: Jonte Clark, Kaireem Meeks, Dante Crump and Adam “Jeff” McQueen

The faces in the photos stare out at you with an intensity born of youth. Their eyes peer past the camera into a future full of possibility, full of accomplishment soon to come, a future better than any past they’d endured to get to where they are surely bound.

They were men hardly known outside their families and their neighborhoods until a week ago, when the car they were traveling in careened down a steep slope in the village of Saugerties, struck a house on Dock St. and overturned on Wednesday, Aug. 26, just before noon. All four men were declared dead on the scene. Meredith McSpirit, the 19-year-old driver of the car, survived with a serious spinal injury and was listed in stable condition.

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All four men — Adam “Jeff” McQueen, 22, Dante Crump, 22, Kaireem Meeks, 24, and Jonte Clark, 26 — were fast friends. All had attended Kingston High School and all lived in the city, except McQueen, who lived in Ulster Park. Two of them were scholarship students at exclusive private colleges. They were on their way home from the HITS horse shows, where they’d recently gotten jobs.

The news brought an overwhelming wave of grief to everyone who knew them; the adults who nurtured them as kids, the friends who played basketball with them at the Y, the girls who flirted with them in high school — everyone, man and woman, parent or friend, who worried about them as they made their way into a world not always welcoming to young black men.

This is the story of the aftermath of those four deaths; a glancing look at what the survivors of this tragedy said and did to comfort each other last Saturday, three days after the accident. It contains no new insights into how or why the accident occurred — those answers await further police and forensic investigation. Rather, this is a story about how a handful of the people left behind to mourn those deaths dealt publicly with their loss.

 

Marjorie Knox and her family address the crowd at one of the Kingston vigils (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Marjorie Knox and her family address the crowd at one of the Kingston vigils (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Overcoming the dark

A dozen or so people stood or sat awkwardly near a table set with candles and photos of the four men at a modest Saturday afternoon vigil outside the Christ Everlasting Fire and Deliverance Church on Midtown Kingston’s Elmendorf Street. Pastor Vincent Esannason acknowledged that awkwardness. This was not, he said, “a church thing” but “a community thing.” He suggested that speaking out about how they felt about the tragedy could help people deal with it.

“Unfocused pain is damaging,” he said. Voicing their feelings in the bright summer sun might help them later, “in the midnight hour, when everything seems dark and lost.”

On the sidewalk in front of the church, Carla Bryant stood chatting with several other women. She said she had known all four men. She’d known Jonte and Dante since they were little boys.

Contending with their loss was hard, she said. “I’m just trying to stay strong for the families.”

“They were great souls.”

Next to her stood a woman who was ready to echo a promise Esannason had made earlier: that bad things that happen to people fade. People survive and carry on.

The woman’s name is Margaret Knox. Nearly 20 years ago, her 7-year-old daughter, Rickel, was kidnapped and murdered in one of Kingston’s most notorious and heart-rending crimes.

“How did I get through my day? When my daughter died, I realized I had to be there for my son, who was one year old at the time.”

Her son, R.T., is 21 now. He doesn’t remember his big sister.

Knox said she was standing by to support the children left behind by the tragedy.

 

A memorial assembled on the embankment the car drove down. Below is Dock St. (Photo by David Gordon)

A memorial assembled on the embankment the car drove down. Below is Dock St. (Photo by David Gordon)

Messages

Dock Street is a dead-end street with a few scattered houses and the village’s wastewater treatment plant at its terminus. Last Saturday, hundreds of people trekked to the spot where the car carrying the four men had come to rest. These pilgrims created a roadside memorial to the men. More than 100 vigil candles in glass containers glittered in the bright summer sun. Three columns of red helium balloons bobbed gently in the breeze. Messages had been written in black Magic Marker on flat stones and chunks of wood. Trophies of happier times — footballs, basketballs, liquor bottles — mixed with small bouquets of wilting carnations and wildflowers. “Four beautiful souls,” read one memorial, “gone but never forgotten.”

The atmosphere was churchlike. Old friends who hadn’t seen each other for years were drawn to what’s become a shrine. Smiling hugs and whispered greetings quickly gave way to silence, tears and sighs.

One visitor to the memorial was James Michael, a member of the Kingston Board of Education and owner of Sophia’s Kitchen on Broadway. He knew the men when they were boys attending high school.

“They were the nicest kids you could find,” he said. “Always showed respect.”

He starts to scrawl a message on a vigil candle, then looked up.

“It’s a damn shame. They were so young… ”

Visitors leaving the narrow road needed to use one of two driveways to turn around. One driveway held a pair of prohibiting orange highway cones. A cardboard sign was planted at the mouth of the next driveway:

“Feel free to use to turn around,” it read. “Sorry for your loss.”

 

A family affair

Another homemade memorial of candles and flowers and mementoes had been standing at the corner of Henry and Sterling streets in Midtown since the day of the accident. The vigil there on Saturday evening was the largest of the week.

It was, in every sense of the word, a family affair.

Kids laced their way through the crowd on bikes, carefully avoiding moms with their babies in strollers as the sun set on men gathered in small groups, some of them wearing T-shirts bearing images of the four men. There might have been 500 people on the streets but the quiet was overwhelming. People placed votive candles and memorabilia at the street-corner shrine as the crowd gradually coalesced in front of the memorial where some of the men’s relatives, their mothers and grandmothers, sat silently in lawn chairs.

Pastor Donald Mapes of King’s Fire Church in Lake Katrine urged the crowd to remember that there is strength in unity.

It was a time for weeping, he said, for men as well as for women. But a way out of the darkness could still be found, he said, through faith in a God “who is still in control, a God who will comfort all.”

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Mapes led what had become his ad hoc congregation in a prayerful shout-out affirming those words.

“In the midst of the storm,” he shouted, “God’s still here! This will not last forever!”

“Amen,” came the fervent response, “Amen!”

Later, a young man named DJ Napes, the son of vigil organizer and Ward 4 Alderwoman Nina Dawson, approached the memorial. Hesitantly, he began to sing Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.”

“It’s been a long day,” he sang. Then he doubled over at the waist, unable to go on for several moments.

At the crowd’s urging, Napes recovered, stood up and sang, in a tremulous falsetto, “I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again. When I see you again.”

Afterward, Napes strode off down Henry Street, alone.

Within 15 minutes, the vigil came to an end when the crowd released scores of the helium balloons that had been distributed earlier.

As they rose straight up into a darkening sky, the crowd’s attention was caught by a single white balloon that didn’t join the rest. It floated slowly, drifting just above the neighborhood’s rooftops.

“It doesn’t want to leave,” said a woman holding a baby.

While the crowd watched, the balloon lingered for a moment, and another moment. Then it rose slowly and was wafted away by the wind.