Fox River Grove deputy fire chief: 'We don't want those kids to be forgotten'
Next to the train tracks that run through Fox River Grove, Jim Kreher pulls a weed growing near the memorial at Algonquin Road and Northwest Highway.
He tidies up a bit more, then glances at the memorial's centerpiece -- a large rock inscribed with the names of the seven Cary-Grove High School students who were killed nearly 20 years ago Sunday.
Then, almost as if by memory, Kreher reads the words etched into the memorial plaque.
"The tragic accident that occurred on this spot Oct. 25, 1995, will serve as a reminder to all that the future can be changed in an instant and that the past holds memories of inspiration, hope and love."
To passers-by and to new families in town, the modest memorial could be easily overlooked. But to those who were there that fateful day 20 years ago -- to those who knew the teenagers lost and the families affected -- it serves as a place to meet, a place to grieve and a place to remember. There are other reminders, other commemorations, throughout town.
"It's been 20 years, but we didn't forget," said Kreher, the town's deputy fire chief and first on the scene that day. "We don't want those kids to be forgotten."
Fire Chief Bob Kreher still shudders every time he hears the train horn, a reminder of the day a train hit a school bus whose driver mistakenly stopped with the rear of the bus on the tracks.
His most vivid memory is of trying to match students who survived the crash with their parents -- and the gut-wrenching feeling of watching the families of seven children realize their kids weren't coming home.
"It's just heartbreaking for parents to go through something like that," he said. "The crying and the pleading with God not to let it be their kid -- that'll be with me forever."
Having grown up in Fox River Grove, the Kreher brothers knew most of the kids who were killed, the others who were seriously injured and the families whose lives changed forever.
The memorial was put up within a year of the accident. It was well maintained, but after a while, it started becoming overgrown and forgotten. So, in order to preserve the memory of the students, Jim Kreher said, the Fox River Grove Fire Protection District staff took it upon themselves to maintain it.
They added mulch and made sure the weeds were contained, he said. They also added the seven lights, one for each student killed.
It's time and money well spent. Families visit throughout the year to put out birthday cards, flowers or other tokens of affection.
"I think some of the people who were in town then still think about the accident all the time, and probably every time they drive by the memorial over there," Jim Kreher said. "That's why we try to take care of it."
The prayer vigil
When Karen Sersen became the pastor of Community Church in Fox River Grove two years ago, she was amazed by the village's sense of community. Everyone seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to care for one another.
"People have a respect for each other in living together that I have not found anywhere else I've been," she said.
So, she said, it shouldn't have come as a surprise when she realized the depth of grief residents still felt years after the accident.
Sersen didn't live in the area, nor did she know the families or students affected. She has learned, though, to keep boxes of tissues placed throughout the church, and she has gotten to know the residents who still cry at the mention of the tragedy.
"People still talk about it and remember it like it was yesterday," she said. "It's amazing."
In honor of the 20th anniversary, Sersen is opening the church from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday for a prayer vigil -- an occasion for residents to greet each other, say a prayer and light a candle.
"The community is still very much marked by that accident," she said. "We're opening up for the day to promote some level of healing for the people that are left."
The memory of the students killed on Oct. 25, 1995, lives on in the community in subtle ways.
Angel wings and a halo are painted around the number "7" on the Fox River Grove ambulance. A patch worn by emergency personnel includes a blue and white ribbon.
Today, the fire protection district holds a blood drive twice a year -- including one near each anniversary. The accident was an example of how much blood is needed every day to save lives, Jim Kreher said.
"We were helped out so much in our incident," he said. "We want to help other people."
More than that, the blood drive serves as a way to remember all that the community lost 20 years ago, he said.
Some former classmates and community members have contributed memories of that day on a Facebook event page in honor of the 20th anniversary. Several are also planning to meet at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Friendship Circle at Cary Grove High School, leave flowers and "remember our friends."
"I think this accident is something that will live with our town for a long time," Kreher said. "In a way, we're still recovering."