Father, students console each other after teen's death

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James Ruggiero walked through the front doors of Bellows Falls Union High School Monday afternoon and was immediately met with hugs — and love — and tears.

"Jimbo!" was the constant greeting from the students. They all seemed to know the father of their friend, Vincenzo "Vinnie" Ruggiero, 15, who died Sunday at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, a day after he was critically injured in a single-car crash on Morse Brook Road in Westminster.

Ruggiero, of Saxtons River, said he had just come from Kurn Hattin Homes, where his son had been a student before graduating to BFUHS, and thought he should next go to the high school, where Vinnie spent his freshman year, playing soccer and making friends.

Ruggiero immediately asked the students about Vinnie's two friends who were in the car with him Saturday morning. Neither boy was in school, the students told him. He urged all the students to come to a memorial service for his son June 1 at the Chivers Center at Vermont Academy.

"It's going to be a great shindig and there will be food," he said. The Kurn Hattin chorus will sing, he said.

His son, who grew up in Saxtons River, played hockey at the nearby VA rink.

"The community has been great," he said.

Ruggiero is part of a large, extended family, some of whom run trash and septic services in

the region.

All three boys were wearing seat belts at the time of the Saturday morning crash. Vinnie was in the back seat of the Nissan Sentra when the back passenger area was crushed by a tree, and Vinnie received a severe head injury.

Vermont State Police have refused to identify the 16-year-old driver, who received minor injuries, pending their investigation. They said speed was a factor in the crash. The other passenger in the car was Dominic Bates, 15, of Rockingham, who wasn't hurt.

Students said one of Vinnie's best friends was driving when the vehicle went off the dirt road and hit a tree, rotated and hit another tree and then crashed into a larger tree, state police said.

Family and fellow students set up a memorial to Vinnie at the large oak tree, with a wooden cross nailed to the tree and bouquets of flowers tucked into the cross or fastened to the tree. Someone had even planted a clump of bleeding heart, a flowering plant. A set of deer antlers were also nailed to the tree and the silver muffler from Vinnie's dirt bike was at the top of the cross.

The students, some of whom only met Vinnie this year at BFUHS and others who had known him for years, all said he was one of the nicest kids they would ever know.

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"He was the one you would text if you were feeling bad," said Abby Dearborn, 16, a sophomore.

He didn't take himself seriously, and he would joke "and pick on you like you were family," said Shelby Stoodley, 14, a freshman. "He treated everyone like family."

Noah Johnson, 18, a senior, carved a message into the bare trunk of the tree, where the impact of the crash had peeled off the bark.

At the high school, Principal Chris Hodsden also hugged Ruggiero, and told him he knew Vinnie well, in all the ways a principal knows a mischievous student.

Hodsden took the grieving dad to the auditorium, which the school had set up as a quiet place for people to grieve and write messages on a long banner to be given to the family in memory of Vinnie.

The school faculty met early Monday morning to talk about the tragedy and what would be the best response. Hodsden said students were given the option of either staying in class or going to the quiet auditorium where they could sit and think or talk to counselors. A total of five counselors were on hand to talk to students, he said.

It's been a generation or more since the last tragedy hit the Westminster school, Assistant Principal John Broadley said, noting it had happened a year or two before he came to the school. Two boys died in a car crash also on a back road in Westminster.

"He was a mischievous but loveable kid," Broadley said of Vinnie. "He touched a lot of kids in the building."

Hodsden said it was wonderful that James Ruggiero had come to the school, at the end of the day, to meet with his son's friends.

"Schools work very hard to manage tragedy," said Hodsden, saying it was wonderful for both the students and Vinnie's father to be able to talk about his son, their friend.

"You couldn't ask for a better close of the day," he said, as students surrounded Ruggiero on the auditorium's stage, writing on the large purple banner.

He said Ruggiero's generosity of spirit — to come to the school during what Hodsden said was probably one of the worst days of his life — would help the students immeasurably.

"Those are the students who are struggling," the principal said. "They will be in a better place tomorrow because of him, and the day after.

"We'll get through this," said Hodsden. "He won't be forgotten."

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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