Homecoming Heartbreak: OSU Family Brought To Tears Again In Tragedy
STILLWATER, Oklahoma -
It's a one-horse college town that gets a little Cowboy rowdy for Red Dirt music and is passionate about one word: Family.
Anyone who walks the Oklahoma State University campus is part of that circle forever, alumni say.
The peak of that pride comes every fall during "America's Greatest Homecoming Celebration," where tens of thousands of people attend various festivities to honor their shared legacy.
Stillwater typically would be full of life after a big homecoming win, in particular, one that kept the No. 14 OSU football team as one of the only remaining Division I unbeatens in the country and knocking on the door of the Top 10.
But there is no joy in Stillwater this day. Stillwater is quiet.
A hush has fallen, just as so many tears have over the years.
Instead of laughter during the traditional postgame singing of the alma mater, there were heavy hearts. Instead of postgame parties on porches with Eskimo Joe's cups twinkling with Christmas lights, a postgame candlelight vigil in their place.
All because, once again, the community is faced with tragic deaths that prove reality is no game.
Special Coverage: OSU Homecoming Tragedy
About 10:20 a.m. on Saturday, a car plowed through barricades and into the annual homecoming parade crowd, where thousands lined up to watch nearly 100 elaborate parade entries make their way through town. The driver of that car, Adacia Chambers, is a 2008 Oologah graduate who is not an OSU student, the university says.
Chambers was arrested for suspected DUI, then four counts of second-degree murder were added by the district attorney. The investigation still is ongoing and toxicology results are pending.
Along with at least four fatalities so far -- 46 people were hurt, many still are hospitalized. A makeshift memorial has been started at the deadly intersection, with mourners leaving behind stuffed animals, flowers and crosses.
Of the dead, one was a bright, young international MBA student at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, another a 2-year-old Stillwater boy with a million-dollar smile.
Both gone before their lives had even begun.
And two more -- a 65-year-old Stillwater couple, one a professor emeritus, his wife a university employee. A pair that should be care free, gearing up for the golden years.
Four people at various stages in life, wiped out when they chose to watch a parade, something meant to be a safe, simple indulgence in classic Americana.
People in Stillwater say, although the university community has seen its share of heartache in recent years, it needs time to process what happened and even more time to heal. Because it never gets easier, no matter how many times the unthinkable happens.
Alora Thompson heard the crash. She thanks God she didn't see it. The aftermath, however, was enough to shake her.
"I've never felt this feeling,” Thompson said. “This is like, panic, shock, scared, crying. I'm like, who should I call? Should I call my husband? Who do I need to call immediately?"
As the chaos began to fly, eight helicopters landed in the streets to transport victims. Heroes emerged from sidewalks in plainclothes, and the Oklahoma National Guard added calm.
Abigail Pendleton was a block away from the crash, leaving the parade with her family. She spent the day accounting for her friends who had been closer to the scene.
"Making sure your friends and family are OK, because that's all you have,” Pendleton said.
There's that word again -- family.
OSU freshman Joe Schumacher wasn’t able to process how he felt, the news still fresh in his mind. But he showed a level of sympathy well beyond his teen years.
"I… I don't know,” he said. “I keep thinking about it over and over again."
Throughout the day, Shumacher said, he only could think of those who loved the victims.
"I want those families to keep their faith strong,” he said. “I hope the best for them, and they'll be in my prayers."
OSU President Burns Hargis, an OSU alumnus himself, mourned with his Cowboy family after the 2001 plane crash killed 10 associated with the OSU men’s basketball team. He led the school as president as it wept over an unimaginable second plane crash in 2011. Four people associated with the women’s basketball team perished in that one.
Hargis on Saturday said the campus has had its share of grief and is heartbroken once again for the parade crash victims and their loved ones.
There's only one option, Hargis said.
"The Cowboy family pulls together," he said. "Unfortunately, we've had to do it before, and we're gonna do it again.
"As we learn more about those killed and injured in what was a senseless and incomprehensible act, our hearts ache from the weight of the grief we feel,” Hargis said. “We ask everyone to lift up the families who lost their loved ones and those injured in your prayers. We are reminded once again of what is truly important in life - family and friends. The OSU family is deeply saddened."
Cowboy Country is devastated and confused, but as the state often does in trying times, the OSU community vows to dig deep and ensure the Oklahoma Standard is the loudest voice that will emerge. From the panhandle to the San Bois Mountains, from the Red River to the Tallgrass Prairie -- they won't forget this day, another day of loss. And they say they want their response to be one that honors those who lost their lives to senselessness.
"We're a small community,” Thompson said. “We'll mourn, we love each other, and we'll fight on."
Down Interstate 35 in rival territory, the University of Oklahoma Sooners flew an OSU flag during their football game against Texas Tech, and they held a moment of silence for their Bedlam neighbors.
On a rare Saturday, there was no choosing sides between Sooners and Cowboys, because Oklahomans all belong to the land. And they all know a thing or two about the receiving end of an outstretched hand.
Before the Cowboys played Kansas hours after horror struck, groups of students and fans held prayer circles before entering Boone Pickens Stadium. A moment of silence was held by stadium officials to honor the victims of the day. And the OSU football team gathered to recite the Lord’s Prayer, led by their head coach.
People of the Plains have come to rely on the comfort they say comes from above.
And divine serendipity may have made an appearance as fans were leaving the stadium, blocks from where the unfathomable struck for the third time in 15 years. They saw a sign of encouragement written in the sky.
A watercolor-painted Oklahoma sunset in a brilliant, almost solid, orange – the color at the center of the week’s super-sized celebration, and the color that so many alumni and fans say is their glue during heartbreak.
After the sun disappeared beyond the horizon, students gathered on Library Lawn in front of the homecoming centerpiece -- the campus fountain's water dyed bright in Pantone 166 for the yearly nod to OSU heritage.
With candles in tow signifying the light that is life, students joined in hopes that their dozens of injured family members live to also fight on with them.
Annie Chang contributed witness information to this report
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