EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 14, 2007

The community reacts

Drake Lucas

Paula Sideri came across an essay about Mackendy Constant in a stack of memoirs written by her eighth-grade class this year.

The student wrote about what a joker Mackendy was, always having fun. The student also wrote about Mackendy’s wake after the 8-year-old drowned in the Merrimack River five years ago.

Three of Mackendy's friends drowned with him; three others survived.

"The boys' memories are very much alive,” said Sideri, who teaches at the Gerald A. Guilmette School where five of the boys went. "The children in my class now were in third grade at the time. That's the age some of the boys were."

Five years of students have graduated since the drowning and the survivors are no longer at the school; when the December days turn dark and cold, and the Merrimack River begins to freeze, people in this close-knit community think of the boys.

They remember the sirens of the rescue trucks, frantic phone calls and emergency room visits.

They remember the hundreds of people who came to the boys’ funerals.

They remember the boys themselves, who were known as good friends and kids, tragic heroes that died only because they wanted to help each other.

At the Guilmette School, Boys and Girls Club and St. Mary of the Assumption Church, that day and its effects linger.

"They are always remembered," said Rev. Jorge Reyes.

Lasting vigilance

The Guilmette School stopped having an annual ceremony to remember the boys. It was too hard for the students, especially Francis Spraus and Ivan Casado who were in the river, but did not drown. Ivan's younger brother, Christopher, was one of those who died.

A plaque dedicated to the boys hangs in the gym; students, along with teacher Jane Roth, planted a peace garden in front of the school | a quiet spot with a bench. Teachers look out for the garden | they shoo away kids who stand in it and replant the flowers every year.

"I think what happened is always going to be a part of the Guilmette School," Sideri said.

For months after the drownings, students filled bulletin boards with drawings and writing for the four victims, bringing students and teachers together.

Since then, teachers and administrators have left, and new ones have started. Many of those who are still there became closer.

"I think for some of the teachers, they developed more compassion for their students in general," said Bill O'Brien former assistant principal who retired in 2005. "They realized that everything is so fragile, that the kid sitting in front of you today might not be sitting in front of you tomorrow."

John St. George was in his first year of teaching at Guilmette in 2002 and had two of the older brothers in his eighth-grade classes, a group hit as hard by grief as the younger students.

He described a "lasting sense of vigilance" at the school. For eighth-graders who write memoirs, the topic continues to be a pivotal and traumatic event in their lives. He said maybe this year, the school should do something in remembrance.

Francis graduated last year, the last of the boys to go through the school. Ivan left the school to go to the Bruce School. Christopher Casado, Victor Baez and Mackendy Constant would have graduated in the next two years if they had survived.

Lessons learned

Up the street at the Boys and Girls Club, hundreds of children pass through every day after school.

During the bustling evening hours, children play in the different rooms and gather in the main lobby to meet their parents. Spanish is heard along with English. Many are the same age as the boys who went in the river that day.

The building is new, but it is in the same location as five years ago, when the seven boys left the club on a Saturday and headed to the river.

Some of the students say they still remember what happened. To others, the boys who died were classmates or friends, or brothers of friends, someone they have heard about, but didn't really know.

Javier Fantauzzi, 18, is one who thinks about the boys every day when he comes to the club. He knew two of the boys, William Rodriguez and Mackendy Constant, and their older brothers.

"I feel like it could have happened to anybody," said the Lawrence High School senior. "They were just kids playing."

He said the drownings happened for a reason, that other kids have learned from the experience. Kids are now told often through many programs not to go out on the ice, he said.

The Boys and Girls Club started an annual water safety program that brings in Lawrence firefighters and rescue workers to talk about river safety and what to do when a friend is drowning.

"When is it safe to go out on the ice?" Capt. James Loffredo asked the hundreds of kids packed in the club's gym last week.

"Never!" they yelled back.

Loffredo said even if the ice seems thick enough to walk on, it isn't safe.

"Ice isn't what you think it is," he said. "It never is."

The rescue workers showed the hooks, poles and ropes they use to help people who have fallen into the ice. Loffredo talked about marking where a friend goes into the ice, then running to get help.

Executive Director Markus Fischer said the water safety program is important to have every year, to remind the kids and to teach the new ones. As for the staff, he said almost everyone still works there and knew the four kids who drowned.

"We think about it all the time," said Fischer. "It is always with us, even now with a new generation of kids."

Manny Ayala, director of physical program services, wasn't working the day it happened, but someone called him. When he went to the Emergency Room, he started recognizing the families as he walked in. He said all the kids involved were “everyday kids,” regulars at the club, well-known to all the other students and staff.

"Has it been five years already?” asked Ayala. “It stands out in my mind like it was yesterday."

He said the kids don’t talk about it much, but two of the survivors | Francis Spraus and Ivan Casado | still come to the club.

Associate Director Steve Kelly said the event had a lasting lesson | one of safety, but also of heroism.

"I don't know where the kids would come up with the idea to make a chain to save their friend. It is tragic, but so heroic," he said. "Every time I think of it, I think you don't have to go far to find heroes. Those kids were there for their friends."

Remembrance Mass

Every December, Reyes at St. Mary of the Assumption Church knows to expect a call from Thelma Gomez, a reminder to have a special Mass for the four boys who drowned in the Merrimack River, including her son Victor Baez.

The church serves 2,500 people every Sunday, but the community is close. Almost 90 percent of the church is Spanish-speaking, a wide-reaching group that comes in from other towns. Five years ago, it was the Lawrence community that was the center. The funerals for William Rodriguez, Mackendy Constant and Victor Baez took place at the church.

"Every time I look back, I can see the three caskets lined up in front of the alter," said Reyes.

The event brought people to him and to the church with questions about faith. He said the best side of the church also came out, helping people who have experienced loss, reminding them they are not alone.

"They found some comfort within the church," he said. "This was really a loss for everyone."

The drownings still come up. Reyes was in Mexico recently and people there told him they remembered seeing it on television | such a dramatic and sad event that everyone could relate to.

"At times, I think about it | especially when it is time to do the Mass for them," Reyes said. "You think back. You get your strength from prayer and from people."