A vigil was held in Schoharie Wednesday night for the victims of the crash that killed 20 on Saturday.
The grieving crowd sang the words of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” Partway through the song, a small group of firefighters stood among the rows of folding chairs, embracing each other, clearly affected by the events of the last few days.
The vigil inside the Schoharie High School gymnasium was originally planned for a day earlier outside the Apple Barrel Country Store, near where the limousine carrying 18 people collided with a parked vehicle and two pedestrians. It was moved after hundreds planned to attend in the rural town of about 3,000 people.
Schoharie Fire Chief Marty Pierce said departments have begun the healing process by hosting stress debriefings at two local firehouses.
“And it won’t stop there. Our goal is to get our first responders that were on the scene – and off – and their families, somewhat back to normalcy. And it’s going to take some time,” said Pierce.
Schoharie County Sheriff Ronald Stevens said it’s been difficult for the first responders, but more difficult for the families of the dead.
“Things are starting to slow down a bit but the first responders do their jobs, a lot of times they do jobs they never thought…they didn’t sign up for,” said Stevens. “So it’s been difficult for them. We’ll all get through it. And we just feel for the families that lost loved ones.”
During the vigil, local clergy read aloud the names of those killed in the crash. Some groups wore t-shirts remembering victims.
There were therapy dogs stationed throughout the gym. Licensed counselors and members of the faith community wore red ribbons, willing to lend an ear to those in need, including Reverend Abby Norton-Levering of the First Reformed church.
“We don’t know for sure that people are going to want to have people they can speak to who are safe, who are going to be good listeners. But we wanted to be here to surround the place with good thoughts or prayers – if you like that kind of language – and yes, there are many of us from many different faith traditions, not just Christian.”
The Apple Barrel Country Store reopened Sunday, a day after the crash, and began accepting money on behalf of the victims’ families.
Store employee Liz Gallup said people have been coming in to comfort each other or offer a donation.
“Every day the box is full. And some people just came in to put money in the jar and leave. And really it’s just a close-knit rural community. And people really care about each other,” said Gallup.
Three area members of Congress attended, and New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy addressed the crowd.
She said while it is not known why the crash occurred, officials will find out how a vehicle that recently failed a New York State inspection and had a driver without proper certification was allowed to operate.
“Our administration, Governor Cuomo and I, are not going to stop until we can give answers to these families who deserve to know exactly what happened that day,” said Hochul.
The limousine company’s operator, Nauman Hussain, has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide. His lawyer says state police “jumped the gun in charging him.” The limo company’s owner and the operator’s father, Shahed Hussain, is in Pakistan. Hochul said the administration is looking into the extradition process. Lawyer Lee Kindlon says Hussain is willing to return to the U.S.