The Yale community came together Thursday to commemorate the life of Zachary Brunt ’15, a student who shone as a musician and a scientist, and who engaged all kinds of people.
The grief that gripped campus after students and faculty learned of Brunt’s death Wednesday was apparent at a candlelit vigil in the Davenport College courtyard Thursday night. Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76, Dean Ryan Brasseaux GRD ’11 and Brunt’s family and friends described Brunt as a student who was committed to the communities and friends that shaped him. His death, Schottenfeld said, reminds the Yale community that “we don’t live in a perfect world.”
“Zach Brunt was such a vibrant, visible part of the Davenport-Yale community,” Schottenfeld said. “It’s just not possible yet to comprehend fully and believe that we won’t see him again tomorrow or soon.”
Brunt was found dead in a physics lab on the sixth floor of Josiah Willard Gibbs Laboratories Wednesday afternoon. His body was taken for an autopsy at the state medical examiner’s office, which said Thursday afternoon that Brunt died by “asphyxia due to exclusion of oxygen” and ruled his death a suicide.
After Schottenfeld opened the vigil, Native American Cultural Center Director Ted Van Alst spoke about Brunt’s involvement at the center, as he was a citizen of the Potawatomi nation. Students then listened as a Mohegan elder sang a traditional Native American prayer song.
Brasseaux said Brunt possessed a “kind of social intelligence that is rare” and an energetic character that extended far beyond his long, curly hair and love of vibrant, neon-colored clothing.
“He had a personality that outshone his orange,” Brasseaux said.
Davenport student Fabian Fernandez ’15, speaking on behalf of Brunt’s friends, said they were grateful for the time they were able to spend with him. Brunt was always willing to talk, even when busy with academics and extracurriculars, Fernandez said, and now his friends will have to take on that role for each other.
COMMEMORATION AT JEFFERSON
While the Yale community waited for the sun to set before holding a vigil, students at Brunt’s alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., commemorated Brunt’s life earlier on Thursday. More than 150 of his former peers gathered around a flagpole outside the school in the middle of the day, dressed in bright orange and neon colors.
Jennifer Seavey, who teaches English and journalism at Jefferson, said the school has rallied in response to yesterday’s tragedy. Calling Brunt a “Renaissance man,” Seavey described him as an insightful and creative presence in her classroom, who was loved by his peers.
Timothy Tran, a freshman at Princeton who competed with Brunt on the track and cross country teams at Jefferson, said Wednesday’s news came as a “shock,” as he considered Brunt one of the happiest people he knew. Both Tran and Jeff James, head coach of the track and cross country teams, said Brunt always made a particular effort to reach out to younger students at the school.
In the wake of Brunt’s death, Yale College Dean Mary Miller highlighted the support services available to members of the Yale community. Yale Mental Health & Counseling at 55 Lock St. employs 25 clinicians, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, with at least one on call 24 hours a day, while the Chaplain’s Office on Old Campus is open from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday for emotional and spiritual support.
“Freshman counselors have been asked to check in with freshmen, and residential college deans and masters are all working to connect with any members of their communities who may be under particular stress or strain,” Miller said in a Thursday email to the News.
University Chaplain Sharon Kugler said in a Thursday email that she and her staff are available to “offer comfort and a safe place to unburden in the midst of such sorrow, shock, confusion and deep, deep sadness.” She said there is “no one way, or right way” to feel in such a situation, but the most important thing to do is to reach out the others and “remember that there are caring people all around.”
“We are all broken by this sudden loss of Zach in profound and awful ways,” she said. “We need to come together to guide one another through this terrible time.”
Yale Mental Health chief psychiatrist Lorraine Siggins said her department offers students support in cases of loss, grief and trauma, among other circumstances. In cases of crises, she added, students can drop into her department and be seen that day, as well as reach Acute Care around the clock.
Approximately 20 percent of Yale students visit Mental Health each academic year, she said.
COPING WITH THE TRAGEDY
While Yale has made resources available to the entire community, the communities that Brunt was part of are also looking to each other for support.
A member of the Yale Drop Team, Brunt had been slated to fly to Houston, Texas, with four other students and a faculty adviser, Stephen Irons, on Thursday to take part in a zero-gravity experiment sponsored by the NASA. Friends said Brunt had become increasingly stressed in recent weeks as the project took up large portions of his time.
“After we learnt of Zach’s death, we all felt like maybe there was some way we could have known what was going on, but we didn’t,” Irons said. “[His death] shocked us all. We all felt a little numb.”
Though the trip was cancelled in the wake of Wednesday’s tragedy, Irons said the team intends to continue the project and complete the zero-gravity flight over the summer or early next year as a way of honoring Brunt and his contribution to the team.
Team leader Joe O’Rourke ’12 said the project was far ahead of where it normally would be prior to a flight, largely because of Brunt’s hard work. Irons said Brunt had spent “a lot of time” working on the project, and two team members interviewed said they felt the project had progressed well throughout this semester.
Physics Department Chair Meg Urry said the physics community was “shocked and horrified” to learn of Brunt’s death. She said professors in the department are working to help students cope with the tragedy.
“Everyone is devastated,” Urry said. “Like everybody else, we’re trying to think of how we could have prevented this. It’s just an awful thing.”
Those who were touched by Brunt’s life expressed hope that others would learn from his death.
At the vigil, Schottenfeld recalled seeing Brunt hold the door open for his classmates at the start of the year while simultaneously introducing himself to all of them. Schottenfeld said he wishes Brunt had “let us hold open the door for him too.”
Though he said he had not planned to make a statement, Brunt’s father Charles spoke briefly about his son’s love of Davenport and Yale at the end of the vigil. He finished with an appeal to those gathered.
“This is too good of a place, and you guys are too good,” Charles Brunt said. “Please don’t let this happen again.”