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5 young women, new high school graduates, die in truck-SUV crash

FAIRPORT -- Dave Paddock stood on a hillside Wednesday morning, dozens of heartbroken students around him, and watched as the sun rose from the east.

"When that big red ball came up from behind the school, it was reassuring," the Fairport High School principal said. "We weren't sure there would be another day. . . . It's a community nightmare . . . our hearts are broken."

The nightmare was a fiery car crash Tuesday night near Canandaigua that killed five young women, all of them current or former cheerleaders, just five days after they graduated from Fairport High School.

For Paddock and his students, many of whom gathered at the school within hours of the accident, the head-on crash with a tractor-trailer served as a devastating reminder of the spirit and hope each of the five girls was known for.

"That light that's coming through the window in the ceiling," Paddock said later at an impromptu memorial service at Assumption Catholic Church in Fairport. "That's the girls in cheerleading heaven. All of them, including Katie."

Katherine "Katie" Shirley was the one former cheerleader in a close-knit circle that included Hannah Congdon, Bailey Goodman, Meredith McClure and Sara Monnat, all from the Fairport area. Monnat was scheduled to attend Canisius College this fall and McClure was going to the University at Buffalo.

"She was an up kid who had tons of friends, and she died with those who were closest to her," said her father, Patrick Shirley, who spoke proudly of their Irish-Italian background and their large, extended family in South Buffalo.

For this small community outside Rochester, an upscale suburb similar to East Aurora or Orchard Park, the news of a fatal car crash means friends and family will attend funerals instead of graduation parties next week.

The five girls, as well as a second car with four more girls following behind, were headed to a cottage on Keuka Lake when their sport utility vehicle collided with a tractor-trailer on a highway that merges Routes 5 and 20.

The four girls in the second car witnessed the crash but were uninjured. So was David M. Laverty, 50, of Olean, the driver of the tractor-trailer headed to Buffalo.

"This was, as I'm sure you're aware, a horrific accident that rivals all but a few we've seen in our years at the Ontario County Sheriff's Office," Sheriff Philip C. Povero said at a news conference Wednesday.

Povero said the girls' Chevrolet Trail Blazer, driven by Goodman, was traveling east when they legally passed another eastbound vehicle.

He said the SUV made it back into the eastbound lane, then crossed back over the center line and hit Laverty's rig head-on. Both vehicles burst into flames.

Povero said there was no evidence that alcohol or drugs contributed to the accident but said his office is awaiting a blood analysis by medical examiners. He suggested the SUV may have "overcorrected" itself after crossing back into the eastbound lane.

Laverty, he said, jumped out of his cab after the collision and explosion and rushed to the girls' car, but the flames and heat were too much.

"He was not able to get close enough to the vehicle to even attempt a rescue," Povero said.

The five girls were pronounced dead at the scene.

Paddock said he learned of the crash at about 11:45 Tuesday night and, within five hours, had sent an e-mail to his students and their families informing them of the accident. He included his cell phone number in the event kids wanted to call him.

A few minutes later and still well before dawn, he received a text message from the senior class president.

"Come on outside Mr. Paddock," the message said. "We're already here."

Outside, he found more than 30 students already at the school, a crowd that swelled to 100 just 30 minutes later and 350 by mid-morning.

"All we did was sit, hug and express our love to each other," said Paddock, who's married but has no children. "They know I love them because I tell them all the time. These are my children."

His and many others, it seems.

Among them, the teachers who rushed to school Wednesday morning and spent the next few hours recounting for reporters their tales of five similar and inseparable friends.

"I just remember Sara being the shining light in the class," said Kate Gridley, a Spanish teacher at Fairport. "She was passionate and a role model. The thing I loved about Sara is that she was always happy to see you."

Almost to a girl, the anecdotes reflect young women filled with life.

"I had two of the girls, Hannah and Sara," said Renee Ortiz, also a Spanish teacher. "Both were amazing girls. Very vibrant spirits. Every single one of them had something very special."

Tierra Wells, 19, grew up on the same street as Congdon and McClure and remembers both as passionate and optimistic young women.

"Meredith was probably one of the best cheerleaders I ever met. She was just so driven," Wells said. "Hannah was also very energetic, and I don't think she ever said a mean word to anyone."

Perhaps, the most telling tribute came from Kylene Riley, a social studies teacher who knew each one of the girls.

When a reporter asked about the group, Riley spoke of an invitation to Congdon's July 7 graduation party and simply shook her head, tears creeping down her cheeks.

"They were inseparable," she said. "You never saw them without each other."

Paddock told his students to lean on each other in the months ahead and to be open in expressing their love for each other.

As the school flag hung at half staff, he told them students would gather soon for a second, bigger memorial service.

"They haven't seen anything yet," he said of the five girls. "We're just getting started. The community is going to show them how loved they are."

And from Katie Shirley's dad came this final plea:

"When your kids leave, kiss them, tell them you love them."

Asked if he had told Katie he loved her before she left home Tuesday, Patrick Shirley said, "No, but I wish I had."

"I spent a lot of time with her while she was growing up," he said of his only child, "but you should never stop telling them you love them."

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com and pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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