Saturday night was football night here at the University of Virginia, and 30,000 fans packed Scott Stadium to see their Cavaliers play the Clemson Tigers. But before the national anthem was played, 36 fraternity presidents filed onto the field. Heads bowed, they led a moment of silence for two freshmen killed in a highway accident last week.
"The weird thing about it," said Kirk Martin, a finance major, "was that everybody in the stadium was really silent. I mean really silent. It's like the accident made them think."
The accident that gave pause to these football fans occurred when a 25-foot rental truck filled with Sigma Chi fraternity members and rushees on their way to a party at Randolph Macon Woman's College near Lynchburg overturned onto a compact car. Brian H. McKittrick, 17, of Oakton and Christopher L. Meigs, 18, of Arlington were killed and 63 others, including the man driving the car, were injured. Seven victims remained in a hospital yesterday, two of them in critical condition.
The tragedy at this university, known for its academic excellence and its raucous parties, has again focused attention on the freewheeling social life on many American campuses and the sometimes-dangerous activities surrounding fraternity rushes and initiations.
"We'll be taking a look at the role of road trips and rush and the pressures it puts on people," said Dean of Students Robert Canevari, who added that a study of the accident is under way.
The campus Inter-Fraternity Council, which represents the one-third of the university's 5,600 undergraduate men who belong to fraternities, banned the use of trucks for transportation by fraternities and called a halt to scheduled rush activities the night after the Wednesday evening accident. It also canceled bands scheduled for Friday night parties, although it meant the loss of deposits--the cost of which fraternities that hadn't scheduled bands unanimously voted to share.
The university administration dispatched psychologists and social workers from its health service to dormitories and frat houses to help survivors and friends of victims cope with the accident, which police said was not caused by alcohol. Fraternity members went to the hospital to comfort the families of the victims.
Tonight, about 500 fraternity members and friends came to a memorial service at St. Paul's Memorial Church in honor of McKittrick and Meigs.
Meigs was remembered, after six weeks of college, for his love of lacrosse, for handing his architecture notebook in late, and how, just last Wednesday, the day of the accident, he had made an "amazing, sliding, diving catch" in a pickup football game.
McKittrick was remembered for his smile that "lit up his face," for not panicking when he found out he wasn't preregistered and for helping others in his dorm with their homework.
Earlier, IFC President Dave Trickle remarked: "The feeling is that it could have happened to any frat at any time. Everybody here, Greek and non-Greek, was affected somehow. A guy I know broke his arm. You see people hobbling around campus. Since word of the accident got around, a lot of people I didn't even know have come up to me and asked what's going on with the people in the hospital."
Tom Circchi, a senior and president of Sigma Chi, said yesterday that his frat house is filled with flowers, cookies baked by sorority members, notes from friends, notes from strangers. The night of the accident, he said, members of another fraternity came over and cleaned up the dinner dishes that had been left in the haste to get on the road. At T.J.'s, a bar where Sigma Chi members and other fraternity men hang out, the owner shut down early. On Rugby Road, the university's fraternity row, a bridge usually reserved for spray-paint frivolity carried a new sign: "Our Prayers Are With You Sigma Chi -- the univ."
Steve Klein, assistant dean of students, explained that the University of Virginia has a long history of student self-governance that started with one of the nation's first student-controlled honor codes and that fraternities generally regulate their own activities. "I was impressed with the way the IFC acted swiftly and maturely," he said. "Sure, there was a lot of grief, a lot of parent concern. This past weekend, ironically, was parents' weekend, but the students acted as best they could."
Those who do not belong to fraternities or sororities here said they, too, were grieved by news of the accident. "I thought it was kind of stupid to pile all those people in a rental truck ," said junior Mike Eck. "Frats do a lot of senseless things in the name of fun. But then again, non-Greeks do too. You can't blame them, really. Nothing like this ever happened before. All you can do is feel sorry for them."
In an editorial called "Preventive Medicine," the Cavalier Daily, the university's student newspaper, took a position similar to Eck's: "Some may be quick to criticize the university administration and the Inter-Fraternity Council for not banning the use of trucks before Wednesday night's accident occurred. But it is not the job of policymakers to sit around thinking of ways to prevent accidents which might occur, nor would that be humanly possible."
Said Editor-in-Chief Michael Bass, "The accident isn't going to be the downfall of the fraternity system by any means. It just means they'll have to have a closer eye on safety."