Five Bright Stars: A Tribute

When five teens were killed this past October, Vermont’s ski community banded together even more tightly. The five had all been avid skiers and riders. Author David Goodman skied with them and shares this tribute.

The call came at 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, October 9, 2016. It was my friend Ed, his voice cracking with emotion. “There was a car accident last night,” he began haltingly. “Eli and Cyrus…Mary, Liam, and Janie were in the car. No one survived.”

I heard rustling upstairs, where my son Jasper, a junior at Harwood Union High School in Moretown, Vt., was awakened by a call from his friend Eriks, who was telling him the awful news. Eli, Jasper and Eriks were fast friends.  A longtime skiing trio, they grew up charging off to ski at Stowe most winter weekends. The other victims were their dear friends and classmates.

I ran upstairs to be with my son. To hold him. To cry.

The car crash on Interstate 89 was caused by a wrong-way driver. Like a random, senseless lightning strike, it instantly claimed the lives of Eli Brookens, Janie Chase Cozzi, Liam Hale, Mary Harris, and Cyrus Zschau.

The tragedy struck at the heart of Vermont’s ski country. Harwood Union High School lies within 30 minutes of Stowe, Sugarbush, Mad River Glen and Bolton Valley. Skiing is part of life here and what brought some of the families here. All of the kids grew up skiing, just as kids from warmer climes grow up riding bicycles or playing tennis.

I shared many days on snow with Eli Brookens. He was a passionate—even maniacal— and immensely talented skier, always dragging his friends and the parents who drove them to get the first chair, and refusing to quit until the last. His megawatt gap-tooth smile was never bigger than it was on powder days. He was famous for stuffing PB&J sandwiches into his parka so that he wouldn’t have to go in for lunch. He was known to pull out smushed, week-old sandwiches from his jacket just to bribe his friends to keep skiing.

When they were younger, I would accompany Eli, Jasper and their friends to the mountains, showing them my favorite stashes. Within a few years, they had found their own secret spots, and I could no longer keep up.

Cyrus, Mary, Liam and Janie were part of a large pack of local kids who skied (and some also worked) at Sugarbush. The Mt. Ellen base lodge was their teenage clubhouse. This year, my son and his friends decided to move over from Stowe to Sugarbush so that they could ski with their high school buddies. They were all pushing the boundaries, seeking new stashes and new friendships.

In a deeply poignant turn, Vermont’s ski community embraced these five beautiful souls in death. On a brilliant fall weekend, the base lodge at Stowe was transformed to host the memorial service for Eli Brookens. Afterward, family and friends rode the gondola and spread his ashes atop one of his favorite ski trails. I was moved to see numerous ski area staff, patrollers, instructors, and lift ops volunteer to send Eli off. The mountains that these five young people loved so much, loved them back.

Mary Harris’s life was celebrated at the foot of Mad River Glen. Liam and Janie were honored at Sugarbush. Cyrus’s service was held in the valley, his skis propped up at the front, symbols of a life joyously lived.

The three ski areas pulled out all the stops, making their space available for a grieving community to begin the long journey of recovery. The towns and school also pulled together. On the night after the accident, over 1,000 people, including the governor, gathered on the high school soccer field for a candlelight vigil. Rock star Grace Potter, a Harwood Union graduate, came home to sing a soulful rendition of her hit “Stars” to a packed crowd in the school gymnasium at a Celebration of Life. All around the Mad River Valley and Waterbury, businesses and individuals contributed to a fund established to support the five families.

Five bright stars now sparkle over Vermont’s Green Mountains. In death as in life, these mountains bring us together to revel, to excite, to inspire, and ultimately, to heal.

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