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A year after his death, Nolan Burch’s parents find purpose while looking for answers

Growing up in Amherst, Nolan M. Burch seemed to make friends everywhere – in the Briarhurst Park neighborhood where he lived, in local hockey and baseball leagues, and at Canisius High School.

So when the gregarious 17-year-old with the mop of dark hair and giggly laugh told his parents he was joining a fraternity at West Virginia University, they figured it was just a new way for him to make even more friends on the large, hilly campus overlooking the Monongahela River.

“I just thought it was another thing he was joining … another thing he wanted to be a part of, like hockey or baseball or whatever,” said his mother, Kim Burch. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

Nolan’s father, Theron J. “TJ” Burch, said it “seemed like a regular part of college life.”

It’s hard for the Burches not to have a dim view of fraternities now. A year ago their son died of heart failure stemming from extreme intoxication, following a boozy initiation ceremony for pledges seeking membership into Kappa Sigma fraternity. Since his death, the Burches have launched a foundation in their son’s memory and sued the university and the fraternity. Inside the living room of their Amherst split-level home this week, they shared intimate details about Nolan’s young life and revisited the events surrounding his tragic death in Morgantown, W.Va. They point to the collage of class pictures of Nolan, from kindergarten through his senior year of high school, and to the seat in the dining room where Nolan would study for a big exam, sometimes until 11 p.m., still wearing the tie required at Canisius.

TJ Burch described the loss of his son as an inexplicable numbness and sadness “that’s always there.”

“We want him to be remembered, that’s one part of it,” he said. “But we don’t want anyone else to go through this.”

Dangerous rituals

Nolan’s death was one of at least seven hazing-related deaths across the country in 2014, according to Hank Nuwer, who teaches journalism at Franklin College in Indiana and has chronicled hazing incidents for years.

Nuwer’s website lists 210 hazing-related deaths, mostly on college campuses and mostly involving fraternities, dating back to 1838.

Some of the deaths sparked major reforms in how colleges, universities and Greek organizations handle hazing. But while national awareness of the dangers of hazing has grown, alcohol-fueled initiation ceremonies persist on many campuses.

“There’s a craving among young people for these rites of passage,” said Nuwer, a Buffalo native and graduate of SUNY Buffalo State who has written four books on hazing.

Hazing may be more dangerous than ever, because Greek organizations have become adept at keeping their rituals under wraps to avoid punishment from colleges and universities and law enforcement, Nuwer said.

That often means when something goes awry during a ceremony, members don’t readily call for emergency help, which can be the difference between life and death.

“The delay is real common,” Nuwer said.

Kappa Sigma already had a checkered past at West Virginia University by the time Nolan Burch signed up as a pledge. The university suspended Kappa Sigma’s Gamma Phi chapter in the early 2000s, according to the Burches’ lawsuit, filed by their lawyer, Terrence M. Connors. While the university reinstated the fraternity, the chapter again was the subject of complaints in the weeks prior to Nolan’s death. Indeed, the initiation ceremony happened even though Kappa Sigma’s national leaders said they had yanked the West Virginia University chapter’s charter two days earlier.

The Burches said they knew nothing about the fraternity’s past misdeeds.

Midnight phone call

The only inkling they had of possible trouble was when a bill arrived in the mail from a West Virginia hospital for Nolan’s visit to the emergency room in the wee hours of Sept. 13. The Burches called the hospital to ask why they hadn’t been contacted.

“The explanation we got from the hospital was, well, that was rush week, we had 25 kids in here,” Kim Burch said. “They said, ‘It’s normal around here.’ I said, ‘That’s not normal where I come from.’ Who would’ve known that this was normal?”

The parents pressed their son for answers, too. Nolan confessed that he had been drinking, but not to excess. He told his parents he had blacked out and couldn’t recollect even having been in the hospital.

“He got a little defensive and said, ‘Dad, it’s fine. Everything’s OK,’ ” recalled TJ Burch, a pharmaceutical sales representative.

Nolan’s parents were reassured by their visit to the campus for Fall Family Weekend in late September. Nolan showed them around campus, pointing out each building where he attended classes. His return to Western New York a few weeks later for Fall Break further alleviated lingering fears. He went to a Bills game and a Sabres game and took a fellow pledge from Florida to visit Niagara Falls. His grandmother made him his favorite meal of pork chops and macaroni.

“Everything was starting to fall into place,” Kim Burch said. “And he was comfortable.”

But less than a month later, on Nov. 13, the Burch family nightmare began with a telephone call just after midnight. Kim Burch, not recognizing the out-of-town number, figured it was a misdial and ignored it – twice. When the caller persisted a third time, Burch finally picked up. Jordon Hankins, a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity, was on the other end of the line.

“Mrs. Burch, something’s wrong with Nolan” is all Kim Burch remembers him saying. TJ Burch called the same Ruby Memorial Hospital where his son had visited the emergency room two months prior. While waiting on the line, he wondered if Nolan had fallen or needed his stomach pumped.

‘A responsible kid’

The doctor who took the call revealed something worse than he could imagine: Nolan had gone into cardiac arrest. The news was so shocking, TJ Burch had to ask the doctor if they should come to the hospital.

“Part of me wanted him to say, ‘No, we’ll take care of it,’ ” he said.

The Burches drove with their daughter, Alex, through the night, arriving at the hospital around 6 a.m.

“It’s never a good sign when the doctor is talking to you and has tears in his eyes,” TJ Burch said.

Nolan, who had just turned 18, was on life support. His parents were asked if they would donate his organs. The Burches agreed, but not before requesting that nearly 300 of Nolan’s friends from Western New York and from the university be allowed to file into his room, two at a time, to say goodbye.

“I wanted them to see: ‘This is the result. This is what can happen, you guys. You’ve got to look out for each other,” TJ Burch said. The parade of friends lasted several hours. Hospital staff removed Nolan from life support and he died the morning of Nov. 14 surrounded by his parents, sister and a few other family members.

Morgantown police revealed in January that Nolan’s blood-alcohol content was 0.49 percent.

The Burches maintain their son wasn’t an out-of-control partygoer, as some have claimed on social media.

After graduating in May 2014 from Canisius, Nolan spent the summer working as an ice cream truck driver and also washing cars at Delta Sonic. At West Virginia, he worked in the coffee house of his residence hall to earn money for college. He was studying business and aspired to be a lawyer.

“He was a responsible kid,” TJ Burch said. Those claiming otherwise, he added, “don’t know him. They don’t know us. They don’t know our family and how we raised him.”

The Burches said they’re not naive about students and drinking. They had conversations with Nolan about the dangers of alcohol. TJ Burch believes his son was attracted to fraternity life not because of the parties but for the strong bonds he expected to establish with other members – like the bonds he forged with buddies from Canisius and the neighborhood.

“I think the brotherhood part of it is what drew Nolan,” he said. “He thought that they were going to watch out for him. He thought he needed to do whatever they wanted him to do to be a part of this. He trusted his friends.”

Answers hard to find

On that fateful November day, Nolan was among 20 pledges who were blindfolded, led from the Kappa Sigma House to a nearby apartment and provided a bottle of liquor as part of a “Big/Little” initiation ceremony. Each pledge, or little brother, was paired with full-fledged member, or big brother.

In February, police charged two Kappa Sigma fraternity members with misdemeanor hazing charges. Police accused Hankins of Robbinsville, N.J. – who called the Burches to tell them Nolan was in the hospital and who spoke at a candlelight vigil on campus the evening Nolan died – with orchestrating the initiation rite as “grand master.”

Also charged was Richard Schwartz, a fraternity member whose parents live less than a mile from the Burches. Schwartz drove Nolan back to Buffalo for Fall Break, the last time the Burches saw Nolan alive. Despite their proximity to the Schwartz family, the Burches do not know Schwartz or his parents.

Schwartz faces the hazing charges for allegedly handing Nolan, his little brother, the liquor.

Lawyers for Hankins and Schwartz, both of whom are awaiting trial, denied that any hazing killed Nolan.

“He’s dead because of the choices he made,” said attorney Robert McCoid, who represents Schwartz in the criminal matter. “No one forced him, intimidated him, cajoled him into doing anything that he wasn’t already intentionally inclined to do anyway.”

The Burches’ civil lawsuit against the university also named Schwartz and Hankins as defendants.

The Burches want to know more about what happened that night and why nobody sought help for their son sooner. Doctors suggested Nolan might have been able to survive if he had arrived at the hospital earlier.

“He drank a lot of alcohol in a very short period of time. Somebody needed to recognize that. Why didn’t anybody recognize that?” TJ Burch asked.

But answers have been hard to find so far. None of the fraternity members who participated in the initiation ceremony have revealed anything to the Burches, they said.

“We might not ever know what actually happened,” TJ Burch said.

Chance to say goodbye

The only insight so far came from a fraternity member who did not participate in the event. The member was called to assist when other fraternity members noticed Nolan’s face had turned blue. The member, whom the Burches declined to name, has since graduated from West Virginia University. He called 911, performed CPR on Nolan and was able to get his heart pumping enough so that doctors could put him on life support.

“He let us see our son for another day is essentially what he did,” TJ Burch said. “He gave us, he gave our immediate family and friends who loved Nolan, he gave everybody the time to be able to say goodbye.”

On a trip to visit relatives last December in North Carolina, the Burches stopped for a few hours in Morgantown, where they met with Police Chief Ed Preston. It was Christmas break at the university, but Kim Burch wanted to stop by the Kappa Sigma house. The only people at the house were the fraternity brother who performed CPR on Nolan and his girlfriend, who assisted him.

“He wished he could have done more. He was apologizing to us,” said TJ Burch, who remembered how distraught the young man appeared at the hospital.

The CPR also helped save Nolan’s lungs, kidneys and liver so that they could be harvested for transplants. Four people received Nolan’s organs, including a 23-year-old male college student.

The physical presence of part of Nolan inside other people offers some comfort for the Burches, who have traveled to West Virginia to give talks encouraging organ donation.

“The peace is in that part of it – that people lived,” TJ Burch said. “I guess it’s the loss that made us realize we were lucky to have him, and the recipients were fortunate enough that their families aren’t going to have to go through what we’re going through.”