Sunday, August 13, 2006

Anatomy of a Town Tragedy - 1954

It was the the late 1940's. Life was good. It would be nearly 10 years before it would all end in a series of tragedies, one of them that affected not only this family, but the entire town of St. Vincent and beyond...

This is a photograph of my uncle John Fitzpatrick, my aunt Lena, and their three cousins Marlene, Alice, and Elaine (the twins) - it was taken around 1946 when tragedy was the farthest thing from anyone's mind.

It is now several years later, in 1954. It is early spring, and Elaine is walking home from Catechism class at St. Anne's Catholic Church with one of two small groups of kids. Unbeknownst to the groups, bearing down on them was a very drunk man named John Slater. Witnesses that day later say that the driver was weaving all over the road as he came off the bridge and down into town. When he approached where the two groups were walking, one on each side of the road, he hit one group, then swerved wildly and hit the other. Among several victims, my cousin Elaine died at the scene within minutes. My grandfather ran down the street, knowing something was horribly wrong. The scene was chaos, shock, and death where moments ago was peace and laughter...

It is now June of the same year. It's the midst of a hot spell. The ladies aid is meeting at the North Star Church. Down the road a ways, at the Fitzpatrick farm, Marlene and Alice are about to cool off in the dugout, their father working nearby.

There were no witnesses to what happened next, only conjecture.

At some point, uncle John must have noticed something was wrong. Maybe there was a cry for help. Maybe he heard loud splashing. Whatever it was, he knew his daughters were in trouble and jumped in to help.

John was my mother's older (and only) brother. He had been an athelete in high school. The girls knew how to swim. John, now in middle age, was a strong man and known to be a good swimmer. For whatever reason, none of those factors were enough.

Later that day, when --- stopped by, no one could be found at first. Finally a hat was noticed floating on the dugout's surface. The Webster brothers, from the next farm over, were called upon to search the pond. They found all three of them at the bottom.

Although no one to this day has confirmed it to me, I have often wondered if they found at least one of the daughter's arms in a frantic embrace around their father's neck. Sometimes a drowning victim will panic so badly, they will pull down their rescuer and take them with them into a watery grave. On the other hand, there were (mostly) unsaid rumors that grief may have played a role. Maybe at some point my uncle gave up. Maybe it was even a darker scenario. He was known to have never been the same after Elaine died in the drunk driving accident. We will never know.

And what happened to my aunt Lena? She had a nervous breakdown. Little wonder, considering that she lost her entire family within three months. She later remarried, and had a happy second half to her life, thankfully. That is when I met her.

I never knew my uncle, or my cousins - I was born five years after they passed away. I often heard the stories of that summer, and many times saw their graves at the cemetery. It would have been nice to have known my uncle, and my cousins, and grew up near such close relatives. But it wasn't mean to be.

Around 2001, I was contacted out of the blue by Kevin Slator. He sent me an email by way of introduction. He explained that he was the grandson of the man who killed the cousin I had never met. He wanted to collaborate with me on family histories where our two families had intersected, i.e., the accident. He ended by saying he would understand if I did not want to.

I wrote back to Kevin saying that was your grandfather, not you, and I was very interested. We ended up having a fascinating correspondence over many months, where I learned a wealth of information from Kevin about the incident that affected both our families so deeply. Kevin had done extensive research, which he summarized in a series of tables; be sure and check them out below, to see a chronology of what happened, and a "Who's Who" of the people involved in the story...