HALFMOON, N.Y. -- Grief counselors at Shenendehowa High School are helping students and staff cope with the loss of two seniors, and local authorities are prepared to prosecute the 22-year-old responsible for their deaths.
The driver police say killed Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers, both 17, could be charged with vehicular manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, depending on the results of a toxicology test.
The students were killed Saturday night on the Northway when the SUV Stewart was driving was rear-ended, causing it to roll over several times.
The vehicle’s other two passengers, Shenendehowa junior Matthew Hardy and Shaker High School senior Bailey Wind, were injured in the accident.
Dennis Drue, 22, of Clifton Park, the driver of the 2004 Volvo that struck the 2000 Ford Explorer carrying the students, tested positive for alcohol and had been speeding and changing lanes, New York State Police Capt. Steven James said during a press conference Sunday afternoon. Stewart was not to blame for the accident, he said.
The crash occurred at 10:19 p.m. Saturday in the northbound lanes between the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge and Exit 8 of the Northway. The speed limit on that stretch of the Northway is 55 mph.
Police said Drue’s Volvo was in the far-left lane of traffic, traveling at a speed likely exceeding 75 mph, when he moved into the center lane and got behind another motorist.
After the vehicles made contact, Drue’s Volvo came to rest on the right-hand shoulder, while the SUV rolled over multiple times, coming to rest on the highway median, police said.
The two survivors are in stable condition at Albany Medical Center, police said Sunday. They both sustained multiple bone fractures. Hardy was sitting in the back of the SUV, and Wind, who was sitting next to her boyfriend, Stewart, in the front, was ejected from the vehicle.
The students were on their way home from Saturday night’s Siena College versus University at Albany men’s basketball game at the Times Union Center.
Police said Drue tested positive for alcohol in a preliminary evaluation, but a toxicology test will determine his precise blood-alcohol level. He is likely to face two counts of vehicular manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, depending on his blood-alcohol content. The legal limit is .08 percent for driving.
Sunday evening, Drue was in the hospital with a cut to his head. Police Capt. James said Drue could be released from the hospital before any charges are pressed, but he is not considered a flight risk.
James expects the nature of Drue’s charges to be released today. He will be arraigned in Halfmoon Town Court.
Drue does not have a criminal record, but he has a history of driving offenses. Between 2008 and 2011, Drue’s driving record is dotted with speeding infractions, suspensions and an auto accident in 2010 that caused property damage.
"This causes us all to reflect, with the holidays coming up," James said. "We would certainly expect this is something -- getting behind the wheel of a vehicle -- we would all do better. But this is a (type of) tragedy I live with day in and day out ... it’s just tragic, there’s nothing that can be said to alleviate or ease that."
Witness accounts were instrumental in piecing together the sequence of events that led to the accident, he said, noting that the flurry of Internet activity was helpful to the investigation as well.
Shenendehowa Superintendent Dr. L. Oliver Robinson said the school is providing students with time to speak with counselors and their fellow classmates so they can work through their grief.
Shocked students, staff and families gathered in the school’s East Library Sunday to console one another.
"Any time there’s a loss of life of young people, that’s a loss for us as a society, and so we grieve deeply because of death," Robinson said. "But we also know that we celebrate the lives, in particular of these two young people, who added so much to the Shen community, to the community at large with their presence and service. So we want to celebrate that as well, and we want kids to celebrate that."
The Clifton Park school district is the largest in Saratoga County. Robinson said students are permitted to memorialize Stewart and Rivers by placing flowers, pictures and other items in front of the high school.
According to a message posted to Twitter Sunday by the Shenedehowa Senior Class Council, an honorary candlelight vigil may be held tonight on the football field.
All four teenagers were student-athletes. Stewart was a captain of the varsity football team and Rivers played softball. Hardy plays basketball, baseball and football. Wind is a diver for Shaker High School.
Shenendehowa Athletic Director Chris Culnan said Stewart had just come off of a great football season and numerous colleges were interested in him.
"The depth of this and how much this will have an effect on our community will be long-lasting," Culnan said. "These were very popular kids, these were very popular student-athletes and the loss is going to be felt for a while at this school."