They stood in solemn formation, their faces illuminated by electronic candles or glow string head and wristbands, along Laguna Canyon Road at the edge of the Laguna College of Art and Design’s main campus.
As lights in the crosswalk brought traffic to a stop last Thursday, April 10, students from LCAD’s Big Bend campus and the senior studios across the way joined fellow mourners. They kept coming, braving the crosswalk alone or in groups until the group, including a smattering of faculty and staff, some with their children, as well as City Council members Steve Dicterow and Toni Iseman, reached roughly 300.
Silent for the most part and barely holding back tears, they had gathered to eulogize but also celebrate the brief life of their fellow student Nina Fitzpatrick, 22, who died as a result of being struck by a car while making the same crossing on Thursday, April 3, at 8:30 p.m. They gathered exactly a week after the tragedy.
A vehicle driven by an 83-year old Minnesota woman, who told police she did not see the pedestrian, hit Fitzpatrick. Pedestrian-initiated flashing lights as well as overhead warning lights mark the crosswalk on the state highway, though police have not disclosed if the lights were operating at the time.
The vigil was organized by students Charity Oetgen, 29, and Laura Einberger, 25, both of Laguna Hills. Fitzpatrick’s father and other family members were also present.
Burke said the entire campus community was devastated by the loss. “This is the saddest occurrence we have ever had on this campus. While there have been tragedies involving former students, we have never lost a current student.”
Burke said that Caltrans is scheduled to install a different signal that is more like a traffic light, which is activated by a pedestrian, by 2015, but school officials urged the agency to complete the project by fall. “With the board of trustees willing, we would front the cost of the installation until Caltrans reimburses us,” he said.
Police chaplains Kurt Schonheinz and George Sabolick were on hand to provide solace, though no one seemed to seek them out. Sabolick joined the crowd, playing folk melodies on a guitar.
Amid tearful hugs, conversations were hushed but reached consensus on the subject of street crossing safety. “We need a crossing bridge no matter what the cost. One life lost is already too many, said Einberger, who came upon the accident and has had a close call on that crosswalk as well. “We stayed and talked with Nina while we waited for paramedics to arrive,” she recalled.
Einberger carried a small orange tree that she intended to plant on a grassy area to be renamed Nina’s Park. “She was into healthy food so she would appreciate the oranges,” she said.
“I can’t understand that there is a speed limit of 35 m.p.h. at the Big Bend and that after a few hundred yards goes back up to 45 just before the crossing,” Oetgen said. “Then people are barely aware of it. This should be a school zone with a 25 m.p.h. limit, even though we’re not little kids we are vulnerable,” she added.
Fitzpatrick apparently had left an evening painting class taught by Scott Hess before it concluded. Accounts varied as to whether she left to retrieve something from the studios across the street or just left class early altogether.
“We began to wonder whether she was coming back when we got the news,” said Hess, who described Fitzpatrick as funny, witty and full of life. “She loved the ocean and it showed in her paintings,” he said.
Fitzpatrick, a graduate of Santa Ana’s Orange County High School for the Arts, lived in Irvine and was set to graduate at the end of the current semester.
She was also an avid surfer, often accompanied Amy Bergener, also of Irvine, who graduated from LCAD last fall. “The first time I met her, I saw that she had this light in her eyes. She was always laughing and smiling; the only time I heard her curse was when some jerky surfer cut her off or did something stupid,” Bergener said tearfully.
The evening gained a patina of magic when grievers spontaneously began to sing The Beach Boys’ “Little Surfer Girl” and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and other tunes befitting their friend. And then, from the dark warrens of car repair and body shops across the street, came a dirge that befit a second line funeral procession in New Orleans. No one could pinpoint its origin.
Further from the crowd, a stunning portrait of Fitzpatrick, given an otherworldly aura by LCAD student painter Stephen Cartenlano, covered the campus graffiti wall.
Standing under it, Justin Holland, an animation major from Costa Mesa, could not contain his grief. “We went to high school together and even though she was a senior and I a sophomore, she always said ‘Hi’ and complimented people on their work.”
People began to disperse around 10 p.m. Those who drove away from the campus did so carefully, sticking to right hand turns while traffic going out of town was getting momentarily jammed as people looked at the solemn gathering.
“No one could paint right after Nina died. The only relief is that school’s almost over,” said Oetgen.
Burke said that the school will stage a retrospective of her paintings at LCAD’s satellite gallery in the near future.