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‘It’s all still surreal’: Fatal crash in Florida leaves Holy Cross rowers reeling

The Vero Beach Rowing Club takes apart The College of Holy Cross’ rowing skulls at MacWilliams Park in Vero Beach on Thursday.Joe Rimkus Jr.

VERO BEACH, Fla. — The rowers should have spent Thursday on the water, cutting through the placid lagoon with white oars bearing the purple insignia of the College of the Holy Cross.

They should have arrived here at the Vero Beach Rowing Club’s plastic dock just before dawn, heaving their 200-pound, eight-seat boats across the scrubby grass, over a patch of mud, and into the waiting water.

The day would have been nearly perfect, with the women rowing for miles on a body of water locals refer to simply as “the river.”

Instead, six rowers from the Holy Cross women’s team and their coach were in the hospital, and the family of a seventh was in mourning. The police were still trying to piece together what happened at the site of a deadly crash just above the shallow water where the women had come to train.


And by day’s end a team of young local rowers was hard at work breaking down and packing up the rowing equipment that the team would not be using again anytime soon.

Family members and a coach of the College of Holy Cross’ rowing team took a solemn boat ride through the Vero Beach Marina, which was where some training took place. Joe Rimkus Jr. for The Boston Globe

As the Holy Cross rowers made their way to training camp at the club on Wednesday, the team’s two vans pulled into a turn lane to take a left onto the hulking Barber Bridge. The first van, a 2020 Ford Transit that police said was driven by Patrick Diggins, the director of rowing at Holy Cross and the women’s head coach, took a left into oncoming traffic. Rowers in the second van watched in horror as their teammates collided with a red pickup truck.

The collision killed Grace Rett, 20, a record-breaking rower from Uxbridge, and injured 12 other people, including both drivers. Eight people were taken to Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, with the three most seriously hurt flown by helicopter.


Dr. Jason Moore, a trauma surgeon at Lawnwood, told reporters Thursday that the remaining victims are expected to survive, but for “some of them, we still don’t know what their capabilities will be in the long run.” One of the rowers remains unconscious and on a ventilator, Moore said. Another was discharged on Thursday, the hospital said.

Grace Rett. College of the Holy Cross

The survivors of the crash suffered brain injuries and serious pelvic and abdominal wounds, Moore said. Three were scheduled to undergo surgeries Thursday; doctors have already performed six operations on the group so far.

“Personally speaking, this is the most significant number of patients I have encountered who are in such a serious condition all at one time,” said Moore, who has worked at the trauma center for more than seven years.

The police said they were still in the early stages of their investigation, and don’t yet know whether speed was a factor in the crash.

Diggins, the women’s head coach and the van’s driver, was among those seriously injured, said Greg Gilmore, the father of Maggie Gilmore, a freshman on the Holy Cross team.

“We’re really just heartbroken for Grace’s family, the girls, and coach Patrick,” said Gilmore.

Brianne Rett said in an e-mail that she was relieved to learn that her older sister did not suffer.

“Fortunately, it seems that she probably passed instantly,” Brianne Rett said. “I know that if she had the opportunity to fight, she would have. She’s the strongest person I know.”

Teammates and friends on Thursday grieved the loss of a young woman they described as a generous spirit, possessed of extraordinary determination and grit. Just weeks before her death, she’d set a world record for her age by rowing continually for over 62 hours.


In an e-mail, a teammate of Rett’s recalled her as “the kind of teammate that everyone wants.”

“She was determined, strong, and incredibly kind,” freshman Bianca McIver wrote. “On this training trip, although she was the oldest in the room, she gave the two bigger beds to the two freshmen on the team and opted to take the smaller cot; because that’s the kind of leader she was.”

Rett, McIver added, “always pushed herself to the limit, and made all of us work harder. We are sending love and prayers to her family. It’s all still surreal for all of us. She will continue to be with us whenever we step into the weight room and the boathouse. Row in peace Grace.”

Students have been meeting with chaplains and counselors on campus, said Michele Murray, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Holy Cross, adding that the school had arranged for the remainder of the women’s crew team to return either to campus or to their homes.

“The team gathered this morning for breakfast with chaplains, they gathered again for lunch,” Murray said. “That experience for them being together was really important. They were able to Skype with the members of the team that were with their families.”


At the start of the men’s basketball game on Thursday in Worcester, attendees took a moment of silence in memory of Rett.

Prior to the start of Thursday's basketball game at the Hart Center, a moment of silence was held to reflect on the memory of Grace Rett and her teammates in the aftermath of the recent Holy Cross women's rowing tragedy in Florida. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Back in Vero Beach, the Rowing Club’s youth team, made up of local middle and high schoolers, took apart the Holy Cross boats and prepared them to travel back to Boston. In a boatyard shaded by sable palms and live oaks, they methodically unfastened the riggers.

Megan Kuehm, the outreach coordinator at the club, told the students she had spoken with Rett’s parents at the hospital and that they had told her, “The one thing that she wouldn’t want to have happen is for anybody to stop and be put back by this experience.”

As the sunlight faded, two boys from the Holy Cross men’s rowing team arrived with a pickup truck attached to a metal trailer.

They heaved the women’s boats into the trailer bound for home.

Emily Sweeney, Danny McDonald, Travis Andersen, and Steve Annear of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Jim Clark contributed to this report.