On Sunday night, Mark J.F. Schroeder, the acting commissioner of the State Department of Motor Vehicles, got word of a fatal car crash in West Seneca that involved teenagers. It was just two days before the state was to kick off their annual seat belt awareness campaign at West Seneca East Senior High School.
“There was a suggestion Sunday that maybe we would postpone," said Schroeder, who expressed his gratitude to West Seneca organizers for deciding to hold the event. "It's a timely conversation and that's why we're here. We did the right thing by being here."
Sunday morning’s crash killed Tyler Wackowski, a 17-year-old South Park High School senior from Sloan. Three West Seneca East students, one West Seneca West student and a West Seneca West graduate escaped the crash at the intersection of Langner and Fisher roads.
With the crash very much on students' minds at a time of year in which driving safety is stressed to young people, some speakers made a noticeable impression on the couple hundred students gathered in the school's auditorium for a mid-morning assembly.
"They ... were ... listening," Buffalo native Schroeder said, emphasizing each word. "I’ve been in school auditoriums before, and a lot of time, the kids are distracted. ... They weren’t distracted today."
The speaker that the strongest hold on their attention seemed to be Shannon E. Filbert, a West Seneca town justice and a West Seneca East graduate. She delivered her speech from a lowered microphone, next to the podium, to accommodate her wheelchair.
Filbert is a quadriplegic as a result of breaking her neck in a car accident in which she was not wearing a seat belt.
In a four-minute address, using no notes, she spoke matter-of-factly about the decision she made as a 16-year-old West Seneca East junior in October 1998, and the effect it has had on her since.
"Heading to school, driving with friends, they picked me up ... we didn't make it to school that day," Filbert said. "My mom always taught me, she wouldn't drive the car unless the seat belt was on. I was invincible, nothing was ever going to happen to me."
"It's real," she said to the students. "It's real. We're not invincible. I wasn't and neither are you."
Filbert said she does not regularly give speeches like this.
"I was hesitant at first, when they asked me because it’s very personal – the guilt, the shame, the embarrassment. But this is my school. And maybe if I had heard this years ago, things could have been different," she said.
NASCAR driver Ross Chastain, a regular on the series second-tier Xfinity Series who won his first career NASCAR Trucks Series win Friday night in Kansas, addressed the students while wearing a fire suit with "Buckle Up New York" stitched on the front. Chastain and JD Motorsports are a partner with the Governor's Traffic Safety Council, with their "Protect Your Melon" campaign that encourages seat belt use. After the event, Chastain joined students in a relay race of sorts in the parking lot, a "Battle of the Belts" in which groups of four rotate through an SUV, clicking seat belts as they go.
"This hits close to home for all of y'all," said Chastain, a Florida native whose family runs a watermelon farm. "I can't imagine what you're going through. ... The world can be an ugly place, but if we call get up and hustle and try to make a little bit better, you can make a difference."
West Seneca Schools Superintendent Matthew Bystrak said canceling Tuesday's event was not really a consideration, but he and organizers wanted to be sensitive to people who were affected by Sunday's crash.
"To have this opportunity … to pass it up, it would have been too much," he said. "We couldn’t pass it up. These accidents, unfortunately they happen all over the country, all over the state, and unfortunately it happened right in our own backyard. It’s just too important of a message."