What was supposed to be among the most festive weekends of the year for both the Harvard and Yale communities turned tragic after a deadly U-Haul truck crash at Saturday’s tailgate for The Game.
The crash, which occurred shortly before 10 a.m. on Saturday, killed one and injured two others, shocking Yale’s campus and capturing widespread national media attention. As word of the incident spread across campus, its gravity shocked fans and athletes of both teams, as well as students otherwise preparing for this week’s holiday break.
Shortly before 10 a.m. on Saturday, a U-Haul truck rented by members of the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon, driven by Brendan Ross ’13 and bound for the fraternity’s tailgate accelerated wildly and struck three people in a grassy parking lot outside the Yale Bowl.
Much of the tailgating continued unabated after the crash, seven students said, creating a dissonant scene with the noise of ambulance sirens mixing with the blasting of party music.
“People were shocked, people were quiet, people were crying because it was a really sad scene,” Tiffany Ho ’12 said. “We weren’t expecting this at all, we were expecting to drink and celebrate our last Harvard-Yale.”
By the time of the accident, two students interviewed said the tailgate was “in full swing” — with loud music playing and students celebrating one of the most storied rivalries in American sports. While some tailgates were still setting up, many had already begun serving food and drinks when the crash occurred at 9:39 a.m. Multiple witnesses said the celebratory atmosphere continued in the initial minutes after the crash, leading to rumors that the victims were not seriously injured.
Seven students from both Yale and Harvard said the fact the tailgate and partying continued made them uncomfortable, but all seven attributed it to confusion about the gravity of the situation.
“I was disturbed by how the accident did not really change the tenor of the tailgate long-term,” Justin Lowenthal ’11 said. “Although I don’t think anyone is to blame for this — the situation was just impossible to comprehend.
Angie Ramirez ’12 said she was “appalled” to hear the music from the tailgate’s D.J. continue for five to 10 minutes after the accident, before being temporarily suspended. The music was eventually turned back on, which Paul Robalino ’12, who witnessed the crash, attributed to rumors that all three victims were not seriously injured.
From the moment of the crash in the Yale Bowl’s Lot D, many who witnessed the accident said they were terrified to see the three victims on the ground, with one lying motionless. Nancy Barry, a 30-year-old woman from Salem, Mass., would later be pronounced dead at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Thirty-year-old Sarah Short SOM ’13 was released from Y-NHH after being treated for leg injuries, and the third victim, Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach, was treated for minor injuries at St. Raphael’s Hospital.
As the severity of the accident became apparent, some students left the tailgate and returned to campus. But Lowenthal said he had trouble leaving the scene of the crash.
“I was rooted to the spot, in shock as I watched chest compressions being performed on the victim and the tragedy was palpable in the faces of the officers and the people around me,” he said. “I particularly remember watching two of my friends who were inside the cordoned off area — they had been setting up their tailgate — speak with the police, their faces white.”
At halftime, Mark Ryba, the Yale Bowl announcer, called for a moment of silence after telling fans that one victim had died and two were injured in the crash.
The announcement was a “complete shock” for fans at halftime, Annie Sullivan ’14 said, since many had thought the accident was not fatal until that moment. Once the announcement was made, she said, students were no longer interested in partying or tailgating.
After the Game, which Yale lost 45–7 to extend a 5-year losing streak, coaches and administrators addressed the accident at a press conference. Yale football head coach Tom Williams said though there were informal discussions about the accident in the locker room after the Game, he never made a formal announcement to his players.
“The news had reached me [at halftime] but I don’t how much it got to our players,” he said. “I chose not to share it with them at that time. If it had come up, I would have addressed it, but it did not.”
Harvard football head coach Tom Murphy said he did not learn about the accident until after the Game.
“I didn’t know what to say other than ‘My god,’” he said at the press conference. “It’s just so tragic and our hearts go out to the family. It’s just awful. I can’t imagine coming to a football game and have something like this happen.”
Treavor Scales, a junior running back for Harvard, said there was no official announcement from his coaches on Saturday.
Scales said his team was riding the bus back to Yale after Harvard’s victory when several members of the squad received emails informing them of the morning’s crash. Word of the accident soon spread, and the subdued mood on the bus became “palpable,” he added. While the team tried to enjoy its victory, the accident remained in the back of everyone’s mind, Scales said.
Back on campus, the mood Saturday night was noticeably quieter than the night before, two students said. Several parties were canceled, most Harvard students had returned to Cambridge and many Yale students said the day’s tragedy sapped them of any interest in going out.
The Sigma Phi Epsilon house remained open to brothers only on Saturday night, said a member of the fraternity who declined to give his name due to the ongoing police investigation.
“It was pretty despondent that night,” he said. “People were sitting around, not really saying anything, just silently grieving.”
On Sunday, the fraternity began to consider how to move forward, he said. Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national executive director Brian Warren visited the chapter Sunday to help the fraternity respond to the day’s events.
New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman said Sunday that the forensics investigation of the incident will not conclude for “some time.”