Few will ever forget this,which has become another part of what we call Notre Dame.
The Irish women's swimming team boarded the bus in Evanston after a meet with a powerful Northwestern team. The women with damp hair were warmed by their new blue and gold Notre Dame parkas as a light snow had begun to fall . Even though they had lost, this team would compete as equals sooner than they expected. Pizza and Gatorade were passed around. Spirits were high.
Only a few scholarships were available to them for a "minor" sport. The women competed for the joy of swimming competitively for a university each had dreamed of attending. Without the men's team on this trip, the mood was just different. The short trip back to South Bend was a time to talk and laugh with friends, listen to your Walkman, or cram in some last minute studying.
The snow was falling harder now, covering the corn stalks and embankments along the Indiana interstate.
Outside the warmth and protection of the bus, the snow soon intensified to near whiteout conditions with only the tracks of the vehicles in front to follow. Few paid much attention. The road began to ice. The snow now obscured the beacon of the Golden Dome. Home was just a few miles ahead. Some women were changing seats for last minute conversations with other friends.
The bus began to slide, then fishtailed and spun 180 degrees around. For a moment, they were facing the cars behind them, until the bus tipped over the road's edge, and began a tumble down the embankment. Inside the occupants held on to whatever they could. Windows shattered and burst. Two young women were ejected.
The bus turned over once more, coming to rest upside down.
The first swimmers were crawling out of the shattered, now ground-level windows. One swimmer, Haley Scott, was one of the first who had crawled out of a window. Hearing her friends' cries, she pushed herself off the snow to return to help, but had difficulty moving her legs. Laying back in the snow, a calm peacefulness came over her with only the softness of large snowflakes falling, melting on her face as the sound of the bus wheels turning faded.
Passersby stopped to scramble down the snow-covered embankment. The accident was radioed in, pehaps by a trucker. Ten ambulances and fire fighters were the first responders. The paramedics stabilized the injured with cervical collars and transported them on backboards to South Bend's trauma hospital's emergency room. In the ER, alerted to the accident, the nurses and doctors initiatiated their mass casuality procedures. Most women had suffered rib, collarbone and finger fractures, blunt head trauma, lacerations or cervical strains. Pain and bleeding were brought under control.
Haley Scott had no pain below her waist - nor any feeling at all.
Word of the accident involving Notre Dame athletes quickly spread to the campus and throughout South Bend. By the time Dick Rosenthal, ND's Athletic Director, arrived a few hours after the accident, physicians were telling Haley that she suffered a spinal injury and recommended immediate exploratory surgery to visualize the damage, stabilize her spine and give her a chance at recovery from her paralysis.
The eighteen year old Scott said, "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's get going."
Word spread quickly in the small community of Notre Dame and in South Bend. Friends imposed on staff for rides. The men's swim team members and Notre Dame administrators gathered. Three of the women swimmers were missing. One had been taken in a private car to another hospital. Sadly, two died in the accident - Meghan Beeler of South Bend and Colleen Hipp of St. Louis.
Before the media began broadcasting news of the crash, parents needed to be notified and to learn the status of their daughter's injuries. In the operating room, Haley Scott was undergoing a surgery that would take hours. Afterwards, she lay sedated in the ICU with IV drips controlling her pain and with new rods along her spine. In the quiet and semi-darkness, the only sounds that she may have heard were staff whispers and the ventilator's regular inspirations. Haley's parents were flying from Phoenix, trying to control their worries and feelings of helplessness.
The Beelers and Hipps were coping with their ultimate loss.
God Bless Our Swimmers
Notre Dame has always felt close and after graduation like an extended family. Now the family became closer in an unwanted way. A huge sign hung from a dorm - "God Bless Our Swimmers". A day later, a mass at the Basilica overflowed with students. Over two hundred students stood outside in the snow for the entire service. The priests ran out of wafers. The Grotto filled with candles. All began to mourn and to pray. Students had lost roommates, friends, classmates or knew others critically injured.
Three days after the accident, Haley Scott - now extubated and awake - still could not move her legs. She and her teammates were asking how the others were. A second operation looking for a blood clot that could have caused the paralysis turned up nothing. Her parents at her bedside, Haley was told she may never regain feeling and moverment. Although lying in the snow may have decreased the spinal trauma, she now needed to prepare herself for a different life.
On that day, funerals were held for both Meghan and Colleen. Half the swim team went to the one in South Bend. The other half attended the other funeral in St. Louis.
Haley, as fellow freshman, felt deeply the loss of her friends Colleen and Meghan. She drew upon an inner strength to make sense of the tragedy. Athletes train to overcome obstacles. Each and every success brings more feelings of invincibility and control over situtions. Invincibility and that sense of mastery and control were shattered with the accident. What took its place were the immediate warmth of her parents, friends, other swimmers and a tangible sense of being enveloped by the Notre Dame family.
She would accept whatever would come and would start from here. She had work to do. She would recover. She would show up for school in the fall.
Colleen and Meghan would help her. She would swim again regardless.