UXBRIDGE — The family of Grace Rett, the record-breaking rower at the College of the Holy Cross who was killed in a harrowing van crash in Florida in January, spoke publicly for the first time about their daughter Wednesday, describing a wrenching nine months during which they threw themselves into building a gym at Rett’s former Catholic school in her honor.
“It’s really quiet and it shouldn’t be," said Chris Rett, Grace’s father, describing the family home in an interview with the Globe. “There are days where I think she’s just still at school."
Rett, a sophomore, had traveled to Florida in January with the women’s rowing team for a week of winter training. Her team was bound for an early morning practice when Patrick Diggins, the Holy Cross coach, drove the rental van left into oncoming traffic, violently colliding with a pickup truck. A police lieutenant later described the scene as a “war zone.”
The impact of the crash killed Rett, riding in the passenger seat, and injured a dozen others, including both drivers. Rett had celebrated her 20th birthday the day before.
Rett’s family said they had driven Grace to the airport for the winter training trip. She “couldn’t wait to get there,” thrilled at the prospect of being back on the water. On her birthday, they FaceTimed with her in her Florida hotel room at the moment she was born (6:36 p.m.), a family tradition. She was delighted: Her teammates had given her two cakes and she had broken a knife trying to cut into one.
“It was frozen,” her mom said, laughing.
Early the next morning, the team set out for the Vero Beach Rowing Club. Police arrived on the scene at around 7:30 and soon ambulances and helicopters were racing the injured to local hospitals. Diggins, the coach who was driving, appeared to be in a state of shock, saying, “Did I have a green arrow? God please let me have had a green arrow" to himself as paramedics treated him and others, according to a police report.
Diggins retired from Holy Cross a month later and has not spoken publicly about the accident. In February, he was issued a noncriminal traffic citation for failing to yield to oncoming traffic while driving the van.
The Rett family declined to comment on whether they were considering any legal action against Diggins or Holy Cross, but said the school had been supportive of them and that members of Grace’s crew team were in touch almost every day.
One of the Holy Cross students injured in the crash, Maggie O’Leary, filed and then dropped a lawsuit against the college and Diggins in the spring. Another lawsuit against Holy Cross and Diggins, filed by the driver of the pickup truck, remains pending in Florida.
After Grace died, her family said, they were buoyed by an outpouring of support from rowing teams around the country: Team members etched Grace’s number, 22, on their sneakers, wore Holy Cross purple, and rowed in her honor.
Soon after the accident, the coronavirus hit, and the family has been quarantined together in their Uxbridge home since. They joke that Grace would have hated the virus because it would have prevented her from going to the gym. The shutdown was both a relief and a striking reminder of the Retts' loss.
“The silence is tough, but we also kind of needed some quiet time too. It’s hard to tell so many people you need a little space,” Chris said. It has also been difficult to grieve in isolation, he said; his grief class takes place over Zoom.
The Retts have now turned their attention to Grace’s legacy. As a child, she attended Our Lady of the Valley Regional School, a K-8 Catholic school in Uxbridge, where her mother teaches music. She was a star basketball player (she hadn’t taken up rowing yet) and she always wished for a gym.
Grace’s family gathered in a classroom at the school Wednesday night and recalled her enthusiasm and the tight bonds she made there.
“She would say, ‘Someday. Someday. If I ever have enough money, I’ll buy a gym,’” for the school, Mary Jo Rett, Grace’s mother, recalled.
An anonymous donor earlier this year pledged $1 million towards the Grace Rett Athletic Complex and Education, or G.R.A.C.E. Center. The 7,500-square-foot facility will have a basketball court, bleacher seats, and two indoor classrooms.
The Rett family is fund-raising to match the $1 million donation.
“As a dad, my role is going to change,” Chris Rett said. “You go from providing and guiding, to now trying to keep her spirit alive.”
Brianne Rett, 17, said the gym is a fitting honor for her sister.
“There’s no other person that lived the mission (of the school) as well as Grace did,” she said.