PLATTSBURGH — When Kelly Donah thinks of her daughter, Samantha, she remembers the teen’s laughter, her beautiful smile and her ability to light up a room.
And today, on the one-year anniversary of the tragic car accident that claimed the lives of Samantha and three other area high-school students on Peasleeville Road in Peru, Kelly hopes those who knew her daughter will take comfort in recalling her cheerful spirit.
“She wouldn’t want us to be crying and to be sad,” Kelly said.
Just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, Samantha, 17, of Plattsburgh was riding with her boyfriend, Brandon Sorrell, 17, of Peru, on Peasleeville Road when the vehicle Brandon was driving struck Dat T. Ong, 17, of Vietnam and Chu “Allen” Xiong, 18, of China.
Dat and Chu, who had been attending Seton Catholic Central School since the beginning of the school year, were walking in the road near their host family’s home when the accident occurred.
All four teens were killed.
“It’s been extremely difficult,” Kelly said of the year since the accident. “Samantha was my firstborn, my only daughter, and she was my everything.
“A piece of my died me that day, and nothing is the same.”
NORTH COUNTRY MOURNED
The horrific tragedy stunned the region.
The day following the accident, a vigil was held on the U.S. Oval in Plattsburgh, where the victims’ families and friends and community members gathered to mourn the young people. Seton Catholic students took part, as did students from Beekmantown High School, where Samantha attended as a junior, and Peru High School, where Brandon had been a senior.
A separate service, which combined the Catholic and Buddhist faiths, was held a week later at Seton Catholic in memory of Dat and Chu, international students from, respectively, Vietnam and China.
And on the six-month anniversary of the accident, friends and family of Brandon and Samantha’s gathered once again on the U.S. Oval to release balloons in memory of the couple.
‘HELPFUL, HONEST TEENS’
To mark the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, Kelly has organized a candlelight remembrance for Samantha and Brandon for 5 p.m. today at The Pepper restaurant on City Hall Place in Plattsburgh.
The event is open to the public, however, the restaurant will be closed for food service during that time. While some candles and holders will be available, those who are able to bring their own are asked to do so.
Kelly hopes the gathering will be an occasion in which people can celebrate the lives of the teens by reading poetry, singing songs and sharing memories.
“Hopefully, it’s a letting go for some people, a step in the moving-forward process, and we just want to remember what great and helpful and honest teens they were.
”Both families are very proud of Sam and Brandon,” she said.
Those who wish to make a donation in Samantha’s name may do so to the Adirondack Humane Society in Plattsburgh.
“She liked spending a lot of time there and helping in any way that she could,” Kelly said.
As well, Samantha’s puppy was killed in the crash.
‘’VERY SWEET KIDS’
At Seton Catholic, students and staff are honoring Dat and Chu today by wearing white lotus flowers made out of tissue paper.
The blooms, according to Derek Payne, director of the International Student Association at Seton, are significant in Asian culture in remembering those who have died.
“We’re not dwelling on it, but we are remembering it,” he said of the tragedy.
Although Dat and Chu were only at Seton Catholic for a brief time, he noted, they made many friends and strong connections within the school community.
“They were both very sweet kids — kind, caring, adventurous,” Payne said. “They were both unique.”
Remembrance prayers will be said at the school today in Dat’s native Vietnamese and Chu’s Mandarin, as well as in English, and students have been given the option of wearing black and white to school if they wish.
Later in the day, a bus will be available for students who wish to visit Chu’s grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Plattsburgh, where his parents chose to lay him to rest so that he would always be close to the school that he loved.
“The community at Seton is still working through the events from last year, but the incredible ability to care for one another makes coping easier,” Payne said.
Holly and Ken Besaw, who served as Dat and Chu’s host family during their time in the North Country, say support from the school community has been valuable over the past year.
“We appreciate all that Derek Payne, the staff, students and parents have done to make a difficult, sad situation feel like we were always embraced with the arms of the Seton family wrapped around us,” the Besaw family said in a statement prepared for the Press-Republican.
”We are very grateful to have a wonderful family and friends to help and support us every step of the way.”
”Our thoughts and prayers are with the boys’ families and the entire Seton family.”
The school is also in the process of creating a memorial garden for Dat and Chu on a portion of the grounds in front of the building.
Two benches have been purchased, Payne said, and a stone bearing a plaque with both students’ names on it will be placed there.
In the spring, two white hydrangea trees, one for each boy, will also be planted in the garden.
“It’s going to be a place that will commemorate the two boys and something that our students will have and will be a part of Seton for a long time,” Payne said.
Months after the accident, State Police determined that pedestrian error was at fault in causing the accident, which happened as darkness was falling that short November day. Dat and Chu were wearing dark clothes and walking with their backs to traffic.
Brandon’s mother, Christol Mastic, said she has found there is little education offered on pedestrian safety, that many have no idea what the rules of the road are for those walking, running, biking.
She and Kelly hope the anniversary will serve as a reminder to people of the importance of pedestrian safety.
Mastic and her family established the Brandon Sorrell Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance to students in the young man’s memory, but also to educate students and adults alike pedestrian safety. A recent dinner raised money to help pay for the florescent-green T-shirts Mastic is giving to cross-country teams at area schools, along with educational materials.
That effort, which Mastic has said helps her and her loved ones to cope with Brandon’s loss, will be ongoing.
When Brandon faced adversity, “he always strived to pick himself and those around him up and demanded that everyone dust themselves off and move on,” it says on the home page of the his Scholarship Fund website. “I... Brandon has been known for telling his close friends to ‘put your big girl panties on and move on.’”
For the holiday season, Seton Catholic will place two wreaths at the site of the accident.
One will mark the spot where Dat and Chu were struck, and the other will be placed at the location where the vehicle carrying Brandon and Samantha came to rest.
Payne noted that both Dat and Chu’s parents are very appreciative of what the school has done to preserve their children’s memories and also of the outpouring of support from the school and local community.
“They also want everybody to know how thankful they are and how much sympathy they have for Brandon and Samantha’s families,” he said.
“All the families are sharing in the same tragedy.”
Email Ashleigh Livingston: email@example.com
New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1156 says to always walk against traffic and ride with traffic.
Here are some other important safety rules posted on the Brandon Sorrell Scholarship Foundation website:
- Stay on the sidewalk and crosswalks. Avoid walking in traffic where there are no sidewalks or crosswalks. If you have to walk on a road that does not have sidewalks, walk facing traffic.
- Cross at intersections. Most people are hit by cars when they cross the road at places other than intersections. At intersections where there are traffic lights, wait until the light straight ahead turns green, or until "WALK" is illuminated. Pedestrians already in the street should continue walking and complete the crossing. If it takes you longer than normal to cross the street, or if it is a particularly wide thoroughfare, always wait for a walk signal.
- Before crossing the street, stop at the curb and look left, right, and left again for traffic. Stopping at the curb signals drivers that you intend to cross. Cross in marked crosswalks and obey the signal.
- Drivers need to see you to avoid you. Stay out of the driver's blind spot. Make eye contact with drivers when crossing busy streets. Wear bright colors or reflective clothing if you are walking near traffic at night. Carry a flashlight when walking in the dark.
- The majority of pedestrian deaths occur in dark or twilight conditions and at locations other than intersections, where vehicle speeds may be higher and where drivers do not expect to have to stop.
Learn more about pedestrian safety or how to contribute to the Scholarship Fund at: http://www.brandonsorrell.com