Katie’s Garden is planted next to West Hall.
It resembles many of the other gardens and memorial sites scattered around the Colgate campus: quaint, poignant, unassuming. In day-to-day life at Colgate, it goes largely unnoticed.
But today at 10 p.m., a number of people will gather at the garden to pray and to hug and to observe the fifth-year anniversary of the accident that tragically cut short the lives of four students and changed Colgate forever.
In the early morning hours of November 11, 2000, first-year Colgate student Katie Almeter and two of her high school friends from Norwich, Emily Collins and Rachel Nargiso, flagged down a Jeep for a ride to the Coop. Colgate junior Rob Koester was behind the wheel. Also in the car were Kevin King, Koester’s hometown friend, Chris Rea, and first-year Elke Wagle. The girls climbed inside, and the Jeep turned onto Oak Drive and sped off. The Oak tree it crashed into is still scarred today.
Almeter, Collins, Nargiso and King were all pronounced dead at the scene.
Koester, who had been drinking that night at DKE and a downtown bar called Peabody’s, was found to have a blood-alcohol content of .17. He sustained minor injuries and was charged with driving while intoxicated and four counts of second degree vehicular manslaughter.
“It was a horrendous situation,” Professor of Literature Susan Cerasano said. “At Colgate, we are all investing in young people. To lose young people in such a tragic manner was like losing a little bit of hope.”
Associate Professor of Chemistry Germaine Gogel echoed her thoughts.
“It was a very, very sad time to be here,” she said. “Everyone in the Colgate community felt the reverberations of what had happened.”
The reverberations were felt all the way in Seattle, where Professor of Biology Ron Hoham was on sabbatical at the University of Washington.
“It was a shockwave,” Hoham said.”Some students who were here were really considering leaving because the atmosphere had made it so difficult to be here. They would tell me that over email, and I could feel it in their writing – the psychological toll the situation was taking on them.”
Hoham said that even when he returned to Hamilton in the spring of 2001, the accident was still very much in the air.
“When I came back, campus seemed to be subdued,” Hoham said. “There was an overriding feeling of people not being themselves.”
President Rebecca Chopp was not yet at Colgate when the accident occurred, but said that when she arrived on campus almost two years later,, the memory was still alive.
“People were still very much in mourning,” she said. “Katie’s friends were still here. The friends of the young man who had to be jailed for this were still here. It was still very face-to-face.”
The reverberations of November 11, 2000 are still felt today.
“We’re a community here,” Chopp said. “It would be a terrible community that could go through something like that and not still feel it many years later.”
The changes that took place at Colgate in the aftermath of the accident are palpable. Five years ago, there was no Cruiser. There were no emergency blue lights on campus. There was no mandatory semester-long suspension for any Colgate student caught driving drunk, on campus or off.
The crash also accelerated the administration’s hiring of a task force to examine campus culture, the findings of which led to the Broad Street Initiative.
“Institutions are too complex to say one incident happens and all these things occur,” Chopp said. “But the accident did serve as an impetus for certain projects to come to the forefront.”
Director of Campus Safety Gary Bean is reminded of the accident twice a day, every day, when he drives down Colgate’s famous tree-lined street.
Bean said that the crash raised his “concern in general about people who have consumed alcohol.”
“I never want to have to go through anything like that again,” he said.
Yet Bean is concerned that students do not share his apprehensions about drunk driving. Although the number of DWI incidents at Colgate has gone down markedly since the accident – undoubtedly in large part due to the advent of the Cruiser – there has been at least one drunk driving arrest every semester since.
But five years later, how far has Colgate come?
“People forget, and life goes on,” Hoham said. “Time’s funny like that.”
He points to a tree outside his office window dedicated to Thomas Mullet ’83, who died of cancer while a student at Colgate. The tree was almost cut down to make way for the Ho Science building. Only a midnight email to Chopp saved it from a place in the lumber yard.
“The loss of a young life never goes away,” he said.