- FULL PROGRAM: Schoharie Memorial Service
- First Responders to Schoharie Crash Draw Strength From Community
- Amsterdam Recovering, Growing "Stronger" After Tragedy
On October 6, 2018, 20 lives were tragically cut short in Schoharie. In the year since, loved ones and friends continue to keep the victims' memories alive, choosing to remember how they lived than how they died.
This article is a joint effort between Spectrum News reporters Melissa Steininger, Camille DeLongis, and Terry Stackhouse.
Sneakers sit by the door, a simple gesture for Kevin Cushing to know his son’s home safe and sound.
Patrick, 30, saw the world in those shoes. He wore them while competing around the globe in dodge ball.
"He would be doing flips around the court," Kevin said.
MEMORIAL TO BE UNVEILED, AMSTERDAM TO HONOR VICTIMS
Friends, family, and the community will honor the 20 lives lost. In a private event on Saturday at 9 a.m., a permanent memorial will be unveiled. On Sunday at 6 p.m., a public event will be held in Amsterdam to pay tribute. Spectrum News Albany will show both events live.
Patrick was one of the world’s best dodge ball players, suiting up for Team USA. He was an athlete from the moment he could walk.
"Patrick was as thin as a rail and fast as a dart," Kevin said.
Growing up, Patrick landed a spot on almost every team in Amsterdam. His dad coached him and his brother along the way.
Patrick was a quiet kid, but a force to be reckoned with.
"It was fabulous. As a dad, it made you very proud," Kevin said. "And the first thing he’d do is go over and congratulate the other team for how well they played. He was a special kid."
Patrick's number, 98, was a number the other teams always knew. Now it's a retired jersey honored at every Team USA dodge ball game.
"It hurts to hear, but it makes you feel good that he won’t be forgotten," Kevin said.
The footprints left by Patrick will never be erased. They will be imprinted for eternity in Schoharie, where Patrick was one of 20 that died a year ago — among them, his girlfriend, Amanda Halse.
"They spent pretty much every weekend together, hanging together, plotting together, playing together. And they passed away together," Kevin said.
They were a group that lived to the fullest, but still had so much life ahead of them.
Patrick left a piece of himself with everyone he met.
"When Patrick hugs you, you’re hugged. You feel it," Kevin said. "Right to your soul, you feel it. I’ll never forget his hugs."
Days after his loss, tournaments held in his name kept his spirit alive.
"I get more than I give when I go to meet with his friends and hear their stories," Kevin said. "The love they had for Patrick and the love Patrick had for them. I’m just so proud of him."
Today, Patrick’s shoes still sit outside his dad’s door, a symbol of a father trying make it through each day, step by step.
And it's a reminder that Patrick’s memory is always there with them, at home — safe and sound.
"I think we’re all just incredibly proud that he’s part of our family," Kevin said. "He’ll always be a part of our family."
A wedding day is one of the most important days of a woman's life.
For Erin McGowan, it certainly was: a walk down the aisle to the love of her life, Shane.
"[We knew from] the moment when we walked into the church to see him standing over there with that big Shane smile, just waiting for Erin," said friend Melissa Oconitrillo of Fultonville.
Melissa, Meagan Stearns of Amsterdam and Erin were since inseparable since seventh grade. As they grew up, the bonds between them would only grow stronger.
Together, they traveled the world.
"We’re kind of a rowdy bunch," Oconitrillo said.
"We had a group playing slip and slide in the Bahamas. We had those big rafts tied together. We had the whole beach, a group of strangers doing running and slipping and sliding," Stearns added.
They celebrated every milestone, from birthdays to babies and weddings.
"She cared about everyone's special events in their life," Stearns said. "No matter what it was, she made it special for you."
It's something she never thought about until she met Shane.
"Sometimes Erin would date someone and she would break up with him, and we would say, 'What are you doing? There's nothing wrong with him,' but she knew what she was doing," Stearns said. "She kept going until she found the one. And she found him."
Erin and Shane spent five years together before getting married last June. Less than four months later, their promise of forever was cut short.
"They had their whole lives ahead of them," Stearns said. "I think that's what gets me the most, that you find that true love and you find that happiness, and it was just taken away from them."
Today, Melissa and Meagan are learning to live differently. They’re still celebrating milestones, but now, two seats are empty.
"Mike and [my] wedding, it was in the Dominican. They obviously weren’t there," Oconitrillo said. "So we left an empty seat for the both of them and lit some candles."
Those seats were once filled by a couple who had so much love for those around them, and even more for each other.
"For [their] five-year anniversary, I told them they’d be on the beach. So in my head, her and Shane are on the beach," Oconitrillo said.
The symbols of Matthew Coons – or 'Matty Moose,' as his mother, Jill Richardson Perez, affectionately calls him – are endless.
"After everything, my husband got me this stuffed moose, which I love," she said. "Sometimes I snuggle with him, and it just gives me comfort."
From the cutting board he made for his mother, to the wooden cross built by his friends in his honor.
"It means the world to me," Richardson Perez said. "Big, tall, strong – like Matthew."
Coons grew from a blond little boy with bright blue eyes and an infectious smile to a man who served two years in the Army, with a deep passion for fitness.
"Once Matt started to get some size and really got into the routine from the service and he could see the progress he was making, that just pushed him on further and further," Richardson Perez said.
Underneath a big exterior was a larger-than-life energy.
"He was just big and goofy and silly and playing and laughing. He was just so happy," his mother said.
Coons loved his family fiercely, sharing a tight bond with his sister Ashleigh and her two daughters.
"They understood each other. For the most part, like one mind," Richardson Perez said. "They were more than brother and sister – it’s almost like a twin thing, without being twins. They always had each other’s backs."
By 27, Matthew had spent two years building a life with the girl of his dreams, Savannah. They bonded over their love for the outdoors, their five dogs, and the holidays.
"Holidays were huge for them. They were like little kids," Richardson Perez said. "They were so much fun and they made it even more fun. They were big kids."
Matthew and Savannah wanted to move to Texas, buy a house, and start a family of their own. Those plans were cut far too short.
One year after losing her son and his partner, Jill finds strength in the people around her and remembering her son’s big smile and giving nature.
"There’s so many things you pick up along life’s way that can make you take advantage of people and not be a kind, giving person; that can make you a selfish person," Richardson Perez said. "I didn’t see that in Matthew, and it is such a loss to this world in losing someone like that. I miss that."
Today, she is focused on keeping Coons' memory alive.
"When you see love and hope and support, you shouldn’t be able to do anything but accept it," she said. "And when you accept it, you really should pass it on."
And all of the symbols are here to remind her how to do it, including the cross – a reminder that Matthew is still right where he loved to be most.
"A short time ago, we brought it home, and it very, very proudly stands in our yard," Richardson Perez said. "Next spring, it will be in a memory garden in our back yard."
Amanda Rivenburg loved helping people. The 29-year-old was passionate about her work serving people with disabilities.
Her mother, Donna Rivenburg, says she leaves behind a long list of accomplishments and countless lives touched.
“She had a big heart. She loved people. And she just wanted to help people. She was a strong kid,” Donna Rivenburg said.
Amanda had an undeniable work ethic. She was a young woman wise beyond her years.
“She was kind of shy when she was little, but when she started working at Dunkin Donuts and Price Chopper — she was 14 when she started working — she came out of her shell,” said Donna.
Donna remembers raising an at-times quiet little girl who knew how to push herself.
“She was a young girl, but very old for her age,” Donna said.
The West Albany native graduated from Colonie High School and attended SUNY Plattsburgh. Rivenburg found her calling serving people with disabilities. She spent seven years working for Living Resources, an agency aiding people with special needs. Donna says her daughter had a knack for celebrating clients’ strengths and enjoyed organizing a twice annual awards ceremony.
“Just to see their faces when they got their award was just unimaginable how happy these people were to get that award and she just, she thrived on that. She loved it,” Donna said.
She was promoted multiple times at Living Resources, eventually to assistant director.
“She was a voice for people who didn’t have a voice,” Rivenburg said.
In her professional life, Donna says her daughter’s potential was unlimited.
“I’ve met people and they find out who I am and they’re like ‘wow, the things I heard about her,' ” said Donna.
Rivenburg’s drive was indisputable. It’s a quality Donna says her daughter got from her. And that’s something this grieving mother takes pride in.
“I was very proud of her. She was a good kid,” said Donna.
Donna now faces the difficult task of carrying on, trying to reflect her daughter’s determination to get through each day. It’s hard to believe a year has passed since the day she lost her daughter, especially since rarely a moment passed without Amanda on her mind.
“She’s always with me. Always. Not a minute goes by that I don’t think about her,” Donna said.
This mother has found peace through what she considers extended family — loved ones of other victims.
“We’re there for each other. We’re there to hold each other up, cry on each other’s shoulders,” said Donna.
The unveiling of a permanent memorial for the limo crash victims Saturday will be bittersweet, but Donna won’t be alone.
“It is going to bring that night back again. But we’re all going to be there together,” said Donna.
An impression of Amanda’s shoes will forever rest on the monument, a symbol of the strides this young professional made and the footprint her good work leaves behind. It is a legacy impossible to fill, honored best by loved ones continuing to put one foot in front of the other.
Doodles on a page are forever frozen in time.
What was once a quick scribble from the mind of an aspiring artist now draws fond memories back for the family of Amanda Halse.
"Amanda liked to take things that people wouldn't normally see as beautiful and make them beautiful," said Karina Halse, Amanda's sister.
The 26-year-old was on board a limousine, celebrating a friend's birthday, when it crashed in Schoharie, killing her and 19 other people. Halse's family was left in the dark for 24 hours before they were notified of her death.
Four months later, her art is the light in their lives.
"It's like having her here still, and we hold that really close to her hearts," Karina said.
Amanda's mom says Amanda had a crayon in her hand before she could talk, so it wasn't a second thought when she entered Amanda's work into a T-shirt contest at 518 Prints in Troy.
That's something Amanda would never do on her own.
"She kept her stuff private and gave it to close friends," Karina said.
When the shop owners scoured their entries, one caught their eye.
"An email came in and we were just sort of taken back," said 518 Prints co-owner Amelia Valero-Brust.
A water color self-portrait won them over, as well as the story behind it.
"You can tell that she lived and breathed this stuff. She couldn't not create," Karina said.
Amanda's passion, two simple drawings, are now on 60 different shirts.
Even as paint fades and pages yellow, it's a piece of Amanda that will live on forever.
"I'm so glad she was able to illustrate the way she saw things so it can always be seen by everyone," Karina said.