"I know you're dying to hear about the college life. Well, here it is, told by a naive first-year man having a great time." -- Brian H. McKittrick in a Sept. 22 letter to a high school friend.
"I see myself as a basically good, moral and intelligent person. I am kind to other people even though I don't particularly know them." -- Christopher L. Meigs, in a 1981 high school term paper.
Brian McKittrick would have turned 18 two weeks from today; Chris Meigs reached that age in late June. At their Northern Virginia high schools, both were honor students and fine athletes: McKittrick a reliable basketball forward for Oakton High School in Fairfax County, Meigs a tough, wiry football player at Yorktown in Arlington. Both were well-liked by their peers, moving easily -- and eagerly -- to college this fall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Just as these two products of Washington's affluent suburbs would be drawn to one of the nation's best public universities, so too would they be attracted to Virginia's fraternities, oases of good times and fellowship at the once all-male school.
A week ago, the two young men were crammed inside a gloomy U-Haul van with 60 other students on a fraternity "roll," a traditional rush week trip to nearby Randolph-Macon Woman's College just outside Lynchburg. But less than five miles from Lynchburg, the van carrying Sigma Chi fraternity members and rushees tipped over and collided with a Volkswagen. McKittrick died instantly; Meigs died Friday morning.
"When I get over my pain, that's when I'm going to get angry about all those kids being in that truck," said Bruce E. Meigs, Chris Meigs' father. "But not now. I keep trying to block out the image of those boys on the side of the truck when it hit the Volkswagen."
Most of the 62 students in the rear of the van rented by the fraternity escaped with nothing worse than a few cuts and scrapes, but the deaths of Meigs and McKittrick left their closest friends and family with wounds that may never heal.
Two other area students who also were riding in the van, Thomas W. Stumm, 21, of Alexandria, and Mark D. Brooks, 19, of Bethesda, remained in critical condition at Lynchburg General Hospital earlier this week.
Brooks, a sophomore, is a math and English major whose parents, Rodney and Cynthia Brooks, live on Democracy Boulevard near Montgomery Mall. A 1981 graduate of Walt Whitman High School, he covers sports for the university's student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. Brooks had planned to join Sigma Chi after the fall "rush" period, a roommate said.
The driver of the van, another student, has been charged with reckless driving, and state police and federal highway safety officials are interviewing survivors to determine if the riders were rocking the van deliberately before the accident occurred.
Ironically, fraternities' use of vans, trucks and buses was designed to reduce the number of traffic accidents involving students traveling Virginia's narrow, winding roads to and from parties at neighboring campuses. Students said the mass transit -- with a sober driver at the wheel -- made more sense than taking several cars to an all-night party.
One survivor of last Wednesday night's crash said benches had been set up along the sides of the 25-foot van, but many of the students were standing in the back of the truck. The closed compartment was so hot, said the student, 19-year-old Stephen Kabler of Alexandria, that water was condensing on the roof where a faint light bulb lit the interior. Many students had taken off their shirts in the heat, Kabler added. Although Kabler said there were 10 to 15 cases of beer in the back of the truck, state police said alcohol did not contribute to the accident.
The weight of the 62 students, Kabler said, was constantly shifting during the heavily laden truck's two-hour trip along Rte. 29 south of Charlottesville.
"The whole way down, every time we took a sharp turn or came to a sudden stop, we'd get thrown against one wall or the other," said Kabler, who received 15 stitches for a gash on his head.
"Nothing's ever hit this close to home," said Joey Snyder, a senior at Oakton who was close to McKittrick. "You hear that 60 people were in the crash and that a couple of people died. And then, that one of them was Brian, that it didn't happen to someone else. That's what shocks."
McKittrick was a tall, lean youth, a scholar-athlete who, Snyder said, "loved being liked." In his last year at Oakton, McKittrick made a point of calling Snyder, Oakton's quarterback, every week and predicting the final score of that night's game. McKittrick had hoped to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but when he was not accepted, turned to Virginia.
"He was very happy with U-Va.," said Snyder, who had planned to visit his old classmate at Parents Weekend in Charlottesville four days ago.
Last month, shortly after McKittrick started classes, he wrote Snyder, describing student life at Virginia as "one big beach week with homework.
"It's early Wednesday morning and I just finished my homework," McKittrick wrote. In the letter, he expressed an interest in pledging a fraternity and asked Snyder about his father's fraternity.
McKittrick was "a very conscientious kid, and very polite: always 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' from him," recalled David Jones, his basketball coach. "He had all the manners in the world."
As a lanky forward, Jones said, McKittrick "would often provide the spark we needed," even though he bloomed late as a player.
"He was one of the best. That's all there is to say," said Scotty Mundt, a George Mason University freshman who played basketball with McKittrick for four years. "He could do anything, was in all the top classes: calculus, physics, Biology 2, five years of Spanish. He was taking college courses in high school."
Like McKittrick, Meigs was both introspective and outgoing, working hard to earn good grades at Yorktown and a spot on the varsity football team.
"He loved life more than anyone else I've known," said Mike Katalinas, Meigs' best friend at Yorktown. Meigs' parents were divorced several years ago, and his friends say he regarded his classmates and their parents as his own extended family.
"The families were interchangeable. I called his mother 'Mom' and he called mine 'Mom,' " recalled Katalinas, who was with Meigs' parents at a Lynchburg hospital last week.
Determined to be self-sufficient, Meigs worked afternoons and weekends at a North Arlington drugstore; the earnings bought a new car and helped pay college costs.
Two weeks ago, Meigs called Katalinas at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to tell him he had narrowed to three the number of fraternities he was considering joining: Sigma Chi was at the top of the list.
"He said he was having a really good time," Katalinas said, "that half of college was social and about growing up, and that the other half was your education."
Meigs would have excelled at Virginia, his friends said. He already had been accepted to the elite architectural school. In a revealing "Life Paper" he wrote for a high school psychology class, Meigs had said making good grades--the outward signs of scholarship--had pleased him. He also hoped his children would grow up to be athletes.
"He was very coachable, a super young man," said Tony Romasco, head football coach at Yorktown. A wiry six feet tall and weighing about 170 pounds, Meigs "had a lot of guts to play for us," Romasco said. Meigs was so tenacious he played both offense and defense for Yorktown, starring in last year's upset win over rival Madison High School, Romasco said.
"Whatever we wanted from him, we got," he said.
On Monday, Brian McKittrick and Chris Meigs were buried at separate services in Fairfax County.