WINCHESTER — Everything was set for a family week of skiing in New Hampshire.
Louanne and Skip Clavette were in North Conway, on Feb. 12 and their son was driving north to meet them.
Their 35-year-old daughter, Caitlin, was to arrive the following day with her brother’s fiancee, and her boyfriend. Matt Bradley had just bought Caitlin Clavette a diamond ring and planned to ask her father that weekend for permission to marry her.
But then the unimaginable happened.
Clavette was driving south on the Southeast Expressway about 7:50 a.m. Feb. 12 on her way to her job teaching art in Milton when a storm drain cover became airborne and slammed into the windshield of her car. The cover, which weighed more than 200 pounds, struck Clavette, killing her.
In the three weeks since, Clavette’s family said investigators have been unable to explain why the metal cover became a deadly projectile on a highway traveled by tens of thousands of motorists each day.
“It’s not an isolated incident. It happens in this state. It happens throughout the country,” Clavette’s brother, Andrew, said Thursday. “No one should feel how we’re feeling right now.”
Clavette’s family members said they have read about other instances where metal covers flew into the air and struck bystanders, resulting in serious injuries or death.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said Thursday that investigators are trying to determine why the cover became dislodged and went airborne. As part of their inquiry, Procopio said police are looking for “wear patterns” on the manhole cover and the rim in which it sat. After Clavette’s death, state transportation crews inspected more than 900 covers and grates and found “no major issues” with the hardware on Boston-area highways.
State Highway Administrator Thomas Tinlin issued a statement offering support for Clavette’s loved ones.
In an interview at their home in Winchester Thursday morning, Clavette’s parents said they got the first indication something was wrong when someone from Glover Elementary School in Milton called and reported that Clavette had not shown up for work and had not called in absent. Her family started to make calls looking for her.
“It was terrible and we were so scared,” said Clavette’s mother, Louanne, as she sat with her son and husband. “Then somehow poor Andrew got the news driving up here, and then he had to come in and tell us. Then we had to get in the car and drive home. It’s just been a nightmare since then.”
Andrew Clavette, 32, said he was about an hour away from meeting his parents at Wildcat Mountain when he pulled over his car and got on his cellphone. He e-mailed his sister’s roommate and called Bradley.
Then he looked at the news on his smartphone and learned about the accident. The car involved fit the description of Clavette’s vehicle.
“I called the State Police,” he said. “They wouldn’t tell me directly, but the fact that they wouldn’t tell me, I knew.”
Andrew continued north, now weighted down with the devastating news he would have to tell their parents.
“It’s a huge loss to so many people,” Louanne said. “We just don’t want anyone to forget her.”
Clavette, who grew up in Winchester, was put on the path toward becoming an art teacher during her years at Vinson-Owen Elementary School where she had an inspirational instructor, Barbara Gagel.
“Mrs. Gagel had a way to make [students] feel like what they did was special in that class,” Louanne said. “It was a place for kids to shine, who maybe didn’t shine other places.”
Gagel, who is now retired and has a studio in Lowell, said Clavette seemed bound to grow into an “amazing adult.”
“What I do remember about Caitlin was her eyes and her smile, there was an energy about her that was just gloriously radiant,” Gagel said in a telephone interview. “Her life [ended] at such a young age. She was giving so much to her kids.”
Decades after Clavette’s smile left an indelible impression on Gagel, it did the same to Bradley, who wanted to marry her.
“She had a huge smile,” Bradley, 31, said by phone. “Her whole face was a big smile.”
The couple met on a dating website in 2014. Bradley said Clavette’s online profile stood out because she included a photograph of herself competing in a half Ironman athletic competition in Gilford, N.H.
Bradley said he had participated in the same competition, but did not meet Clavette there. For their first date, Clavette suggested that they could go for an October swim in Walden Pond in Concord.
Their plans for a swim got rained out and they ended up at 99 Restaurant & Pub the next day, where they had drinks, munched on popcorn, and talked for two hours. On their second date, they hiked in the Middlesex Fells Reservation.
“She just loved life,” said Bradley, a civil engineer who lives in Haverhill. “She was so positive about the stuff she believed in.”
Her family said Clavette brought that love into the classroom, where she had a motto.
“ ‘It’s not arts and crafts,’ ” she used to say,” her mother recalled. “ ‘It’s art.’ ”
Some of her students’ creations are on display at her parents’ home. There is a perspective drawing of skyscrapers as seen from overhead, drawings of tiered cakes in a rainbow of colors, and a drawing of a sea monster swimming along side a person in a canoe.
Louanne said she sometimes dropped by Clavette’s classroom.
“The kids would come up and say, “Mrs. Clavette, Miss Clavette is awesome,’ ” Louanne recalled. “They thought it was so funny to see her mother.”
Clavette drew her family into her passions for art and for fitness. She went on long bike rides with her father and Bradley. Andrew and her father posed for Clavette’s drawings. Her mother helped her prepare the school’s art show at the end of the year.
In her parents’ basement, Clavette’s memory lives on. Andrew, Skip, and Bradley put their bikes on trainers and ride together at night as they swap stories about Clavette. Skip has glued together a 1,000-piece puzzle of logos from different ski resorts. Skip and Louanne bought it the night before Clavette died, thinking the family could work on it during their ski getaway.
Instead, her loved ones assembled it while grieving Clavette’s death.
The puzzle has one piece missing.
“I said to Matt, ‘We don’t want to save it. It’s missing a piece,’ ” Skip said. “He says, ‘No. No. That’s Caitlin’s piece.’ ”