Jan. 28, 2017
By John Heisler
I remember that January weeknight in 1992–a little more than 25 years ago now–when the phone rang sometime after midnight at our home.
I remember someone from the Associated Press saying that there had been a serious bus accident just west of South Bend on the Indiana Toll Road–that someone had suggested the bus had contained members of a Notre Dame athletic team, maybe the women’s swimming team, returning from a competition. I remember being asked if I could confirm Notre Dame’s athletic team schedule for that particular day.
I remember walking to a bookcase and locating a copy of the women’s swimming media guide, noting that the team had been scheduled for a meet that night at Northwestern–and then gulping.
I remember getting in my car with Rose Pietrzak from our staff and driving westbound on the Toll Road to see if we could find the accident site.
I remember finding the location of the accident, about halfway between the two South Bend exits at mile post markers 72 and 77. I remember seeing emergency vehicles everywhere on that chilly, icy–almost eerie–night when there was no traffic eastbound because authorities had blocked the road.
Notre Dame senior deputy athletics director Missy Conboy remembers returning with the Irish women’s basketball team from a game that same night at Butler. She remembers that when the team bus arrived back on campus, the bus driver informed them that there had been a United Limo bus accident that evening.
Conboy remembers going home, calling (in those pre-cell phone days) athletics director Dick Rosenthal, picking him up at his home and then driving to Memorial Hospital in downtown South Bend.
I remember driving to Memorial to see if there was anything I could do to help.
I remember seeing people everywhere, maybe something short of chaos. I remember Conboy and Bill Kirk from Notre Dame’s student affairs office being tasked with the urgent accounting for all those involved in the accident–after injured victims had been sent to multiple hospitals.
Conboy remembers going from team member to team member and making sure all of them called home to let their families know they were okay.
I remember the stomach-turning reality that two members of the team–freshmen Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp–had died in the crash and that the most difficult assignment of the night was to notify those families. Kirk called it the saddest experience of his life.
I remember finally coming home sometime after 4 a.m. and feeling numb.
I remember going back into the office early the next morning, finding an overbearingly quiet scene and not knowing for sure what to do next.
I remember when the office phone began to ring and realizing that–painful as it was–there were media members everywhere looking for facts and people to interview.
I remember hearing that the swimming team had been watching the movie “Dying Young” on the bus in the moments before the crash–and how a movie title could not have been more horribly ironic.
I remember reading the stark quotation from Katey Andrew, who traveled with the team as a timer: “I saw a truck driver who had stopped, and I remember saying, `We have to move this bus. We have to move this bus.’ And he just looked at me.'”
Tim Welsh, then head coach of both the Irish men’s and women’s teams, remembers that night as a line of demarcation in his life–everything is either “before” or “after” the accident.
I remember the University cancelling all athletic events that weekend for the first time since President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
I remember attending the Notre Dame memorial service Friday night and wondering if there was anyone at the University who wasn’t there, as dozens of individuals stood outside because the Basilica was packed.
I remember going to Memorial Hospital on multiple occasions with associate athletics director Joe O’Brien to visit Haley Scott, another freshman swimmer who had been temporarily paralyzed in the accident.
Conboy remembers meeting Scott for the first time the night of the accident, was with her when Scott called her mother and ultimately became good friends with Scott’s mother Charlotte.
Conboy remembers shedding tears so many times during the course of those coming days and yet being amazed that she never once saw Charlotte Scott cry.
Conboy remembers being in the hospital room when Haley Scott moved her toes for the first time several days after the accident. Charlotte Scott, who was on the phone with Rosenthal at the time, dropped the receiver, leaving him wondering why everyone was screaming at the other end.
Conboy remembers traveling to St. Louis with half the swimming team for Hipp’s funeral the next week–the day before Beeler’s services at the Basilica on campus.
I remember the sorrowful photo on the front page of the South Bend Tribune of Kathy Beeler, Meghan’s mother, holding her younger daughter.
I remember when the swimming team established the Beeler-Hipp Award to recognize a freshman “who best exemplifies the vitality, competitiveness and love for Notre Dame shown by Meghan Beeler and Colleen Hipp.” The first recipient was Scott.
I remember a year later, when the women’s team was about to begin its season, that the squad actually practiced getting back into a bus again because the memories from that night remained so haunting.
I remember Sports Illustrated coming to town a year later to write a story about the accident and what had happened to all those involved in that year’s time.
I remember when that next year’s team traveled to Providence on its first road trip of the season for the National Catholic Championships and wondering what was going through the minds of all those on the trip when they landed in the same sort of cold, snowy and sleeting weather and their six mini-vans became separated and lost in the perilous weather.
I remember reading about that in the Sports Illustrated story where swimmer Kristin Heath was quoted saying, “Everyone was scared. The girl next to me, her fingernails were digging into my arm the entire trip. We all were just holding onto each other. That’s all we could do.”
I remember getting to know Kathy Beeler years later on more of a social basis and wondering how she held it together over all these years.
I remember seeing Welsh, usually wearing his signature cowboy hat, walking slowly by himself out of the Joyce Center on many an evening and wondering how many times the memories of that 1992 January night and the aftermath kept him from thinking straight.
I remember the conversations we had about how to acknowledge the accident in the women’s swimming media guide the following year and trying to figure out how long we should leave that page in the guide. We published a photo that showed a homemade sign hanging near a residence hall entrance. The sign read, “God Bless Our Swimmers.”
I remember learning that four members of the women’s team decided not to return to competition the next year–with Welsh saying, “What we tried to recognize is that when you re-examine your life following a tragedy like that, and you ask, `What’s important in my life and how do I want to spend my time?’ you’re going to get some new answers.”
I remember when Scott–after surgery to insert steel rods in her back and then nearly dying during another complicated surgical procedure–returned to the pool and eventually to competition and that those scenes were about as emotional as anything anyone could imagine.
Conboy remembers Ann Hipp, Colleen’s mother, making the trip to Notre Dame to be here to watch Scott’s first competition back.
I remember when Scott (now Haley Scott DeMaria) published her 2008 book “What Though the Odds” and wondering how she summoned the strength to relive all those events so many times.
I remember the University and the athletics department inviting the Beeler and Hipp families back to campus 20 years after the accident for a memorial mass at the Basilica.
Conboy remembers, during some renovation work at the Rolfs Aquatic Center team locker room, seeing Hipp’s and Beeler’s lockers, labeled and frozen in time, more than two decades following the accident.
I remember when Scott was selected to give the Notre Dame Commencement address in 2012 and thinking it can’t get much more inspirational than this.
I remember driving dozens of times past that ditch alongside the Indiana Toll Road where the accident took place and wondering if there’s any way to know how the events of that fateful night still affect all those who were passengers on that bus.
Welsh, too, remembers driving past the appropriate mile marker and always looking at the spot of the accident and remembering. Once he stopped and walked down the embankment and thought how scary it was.
Welsh remembers the dozens of recent Facebook posts–and many more from previous anniversaries–of the memorial Notre Dame swim cap (designed by Shana Stephens, the 1991-92 team captain) that included a yellow rose (Hipp’s favorite) along with Beeler’s and Hipp’s initials. He has one of those swim caps framed in his home. He remembers one particularly poignant post from a nurse who was assisting at one of the hospitals that night.
Welsh remembers hearing how the current Irish men’s and women’s swimmers went to the Grotto Tuesday night to mark the anniversary (doing so without telling their coaches).
Welsh remembers attending some sort of mass every year on the anniversary of the accident and then immediately stopping at the cemetery to visit Beeler’s burial site. He remembers retelling the story of the accident to his current team every year on that anniversary during the time he was the Irish head coach.
Welsh remembers his teams annually gathering in the Rolfs Aquatic Center classroom on the pool deck: “We went back to swimming because that is what we did. We were swimmers and we were `safe’ there. We gathered in that classroom, sometimes in silence, sometimes to say a prayer, sometimes to join hands. Whatever it was, I always came out of the classroom feeling stronger. That experience convinced me forever that it is possible to communicate and to heal. Whatever it was, it happened and it was powerful and it helped us.”
I remember noting in the media guide that Northwestern had defeated Notre Dame 183-117 in the meet that 1992 night in Evanston–and thinking maybe in all the history of sports at Notre Dame there has never been a more inconsequential final score.
Current Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler was in his fourth year as sports information director at the time of the Irish women’s swimming bus accident in 1992. He has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communication team since 1978.