5 High School Grads, Members Of Top Cheerleading Team, Die In NY Crash

Wednesday, June 27th 2007, 5:46 pm
By: News On 6

FAIRPORT, N.Y. (AP) _ They were giddy after a weekend of high school graduation parties, still reminiscing about their triumph at a national cheerleading contest, and were lining up a farewell summer of pool parties and sleep-overs before heading off to college.

But the celebrations came to an end for nine recent high school graduates, most of them members of the Fairport High varsity cheerleading team, when the leading vehicle in a two-car caravan heading to a vacation home Tuesday night slammed head-on into a truck, killing five women ages 17 and 18.

``We cheerleaded together and we were all best friends,'' said Keisha Koneski, 18, who witnessed the fiery collision along a 55-mph highway in western New York's Finger Lakes region. ``In our car, we could see the truck coming, and we all started screaming.''

The tragedy happened just five days after the teens graduated, triggering an outpouring of emotion in this Erie Canal village of 6,000 near Rochester.

``It could be any five that were lost; we would grieve the same,'' said Debra Tandoi, a town official who works in the village's schools. ``Our hearts just explode.''

Killed were Bailey Goodman and Meredith McClure, both 17, and 18-year-olds Sara Monnat, Hannah Congdon and Katherine ``Katie'' Shirley. All five were cheerleaders, but Shirley left the squad in her freshman year.

In March, the Fairport High cheerleading team took first place in its category at the American Open National Cheer and Dance Championship in Orlando, Fla. McClure placed second in solo cheering in the 16-to-18-year-old bracket. The team also placed in several regional and state competitions this year.

The victims had just overtaken a van when their sport utility vehicle swerved back across the two-lane road into a tractor-trailer shortly after 10 p.m.

``There may have been an overcorrection, causing the vehicle to re-enter the (oncoming) lane,'' Ontario County Sheriff Phil Povero said.

The SUV and the truck careered into a roadside fence next to a bed-and-breakfast outside the village of East Bloomfield and caught fire, shooting flames at least 20 feet into the air. The SUV ended up crushed and charred in a shallow ditch partially underneath the truck.

An overhanging maple tree was scorched, and blackened debris littered the road Wednesday morning. The crash knocked down a utility line and cut phone service in the western half of Ontario County. The truck driver, Dave Laverty, 50, was not injured.

``It's a community nightmare,'' school Principal Dave Paddock said. ``Our hearts are broken. We love our kids and are crying.''

Scores of students, teachers and parents, many of them hugging and weeping, gathered on a grassy hillside overlooking the school on Wednesday morning. A giant ``'07'' had been painted on the hill by senior pranksters two weeks ago.

The nine women were planning a sleep-over at a cottage along Keuka Lake owned by Bailey Goodman's parents, said Koneski, who befriended her when she moved to Fairport from a nearby suburb four years ago.

``She made me her best friend in eighth grade when I moved to Fairport High,'' Koneski said. ``She helped me make friends and she was always there for me, no matter what. All of us have just been best friends since then.

``We took pictures of each other; we used to just hang out in other people's houses,'' she said. ``Especially when it's warm, we always have pool parties and stuff and have all our friends over.''

Goodman, who was driving the SUV, had been trying for a few minutes to pass a van that was going only about 40 miles an hour, Koneski said. ``When Bailey started passing, it looked like the van was speeding up because she was next to the van for a really long time,'' she said.

The cause of the crash remained under investigation, but Povero said no witnesses had given any indication the van sped up ``to avoid being passed.''

``We'll certainly take this into consideration and follow this up,'' he said. The van driver was interviewed, and no one was ticketed, police said.

Autopsies were being conducted, including routine tests for the presence of drugs or alcohol, Povero said.