The lobby of the Burt Flickinger Center was jammed Saturday, filled with the sound of chatting children and proud parents in Buffalo for the New York State YMCA swimming championships this weekend.
But meet commissioner Frank Ranhofer and other officials running the event at Erie Community College downtown were reeling after hearing that a fatal crash on the New York State Thruway Friday morning had killed three swimmers who were headed to the competition.
State police said the mother of one of the swimmers, who also was killed in the crash, stopped a van in the passenger lane of the Thruway in the Orange County town of Tuxedo to check a flat tire.
As she returned to the van, it was struck by a tractor-trailer and sheared in half. Along with the four fatalities, two other passengers were injured.
For Ranhofer, the tragedy hit close to home.
Those who died were with the Flushing YMCA, the team he started swimming with in 1945. Ranhofer attended the first state Y championship with the team in 1951 and served as its coach from 1959 to 1979.
"All the people here are shocked that such a thing had to happen," he said.
The Flushing team is a powerhouse. Victoria Williams, the YMCA's executive director, said they had won the team competition 19 straight years.
Ranhofer said numerous champions, including an Olympic gold medalist, came out of the program.
Williams said YMCA officials told the children Friday afternoon there had been an accident but waited until dinnertime to provide more details.
"We shared the information we had, and we had four crisis counselors ready," she said. Killed were the van's driver, Shuk H. Tse, 47, of Flushing, Queens, and her 16-year-old son Kevin Kwan, as well as Douglas Jaing, 10, of Flushing, police said. April Lao, 14, of Whitestone in Queens died later Friday at Westchester Medical Center from her injuries.
The team voted to continue competing, Williams said. "They were 100 percent saying they were ready to compete and do their best."
The mood of the team, she said, "has been up and down," moving from silent and sad to boisterous when they gather to cheer on their teammates.
Flushing had the largest contingent at the championships, 123 swimmers. About 1,300 swimmers and 1,300 others came for the meet, organizers estimated.
A moment of silence was planned before Saturday night's finals to commemorate the loss.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.