It was a typical hump day Wednesday for Wiley students who had started school just a few weeks prior. It was the day a year ago on September 8 that no one will ever forget when five Wiley teenagers were lost to us forever in a tragic accident up on Highway 287 just a mile or so from town. That was the day we lost Xander, Martin, Cait, Hunter—and a few days later—Braden. And that was the day the rural areas of eastern Colorado and western Kansas came together in their own unique ways to try to bolster the rest of the Wiley students and community as they were forced to deal with such an impossible thing—one year ago.
It’s hard to believe a year has passed since that hard-to-think-about day that caused a seismic shift among the people of southeastern Colorado. In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago as we weave in and out of the days and months following September 8, 2021; and in other ways the shock, heartache, empty sense of deep loss is still very fresh in the hearts of the family, classmates, teachers, Wiley community members and even for people all across southeastern Colorado who see themselves in those kids and in that community of Wiley that was forced to deal with such an unspeakable tragedy.
The Independent, like many news outlets across the state, initially reported the cold facts of what had occurred. It was a report that came from the Colorado State Patrol stating a Ford Explorer, occupied by 5 teenagers, was southbound on Highway 287 and made a left turn in front of a northbound semi and was struck by it. Four of the occupants of the Explorer were killed due to the initial collision. A fifth teenager was flown Flight for Life to Colorado Springs but died a little over a week later. The driver of the semi was medically released, but the older occupant of the semi had serious injuries he would succumb to a few days later. No drugs or alcohol were suspected in the crash.
The CPS report went on to list the occupants of the Ford Explorer—16-year-old male, driver, died at scene; 14-year-old female, passenger, died at scene; 15-year-old male, passenger, died at scene; 16-year-old male, passenger, died at hospital; 15-year-old male, passenger, flown to hospital in Colorado Springs.
The CPS report, however, didn’t mention the trauma that would follow in the hours, days, and weeks to come. It didn’t mention the deep anguish of the parents and family members; it didn’t describe the horror the first responders went through as they worked to save these children; it didn’t talk about the friends and classmates and teachers who were utterly shocked and frozen as they tried to understand what had happened; it didn’t describe the decisions Superintendent Bollinger and the Wiley administration and School Board were forced to make as they tried desperately to help the rest of the children and community.
It just couldn’t begin to explain the utter groundswell of love, support, giving, and acts of kindness that followed.
By the time our deadline rolled around the next week, the Independent chose to honor the children lost, yes, but to also highlight those random acts of kindness that poured into the Wiley community. We wrote that week, “When a community suffers such devastation and loss of life of their youth, the ramifications and fall out of such a horrific incident is far-reaching and lasts for a very long time. It literally takes the life blood out of a region, a community, a school and the many people who knew and loved these five precious students who each represented such potential for future contributions to this world.”
We also highlighted what the other kids in all the small towns in the region were doing for the Wiley students—At the Kiowa County Fair that weekend, the Eads and Plainview students all wore blue ribbons. A family donated an animal that was auctioned off at the Fair with all proceeds going to the fund that had been set up for the Wiley 5 families.
The Colorado Small School Sports Facebook page documented the dozens of schools who wore blue, made signs, wrote messages, saved seats in the gyms and at the football fields for the Wiley 5, held prayer circles and raised money.
One Wiley teacher wrote a beautiful response on Facebook directed at the high school students from across the area saying, “Thank you friends, family, and communities throughout the state who have reached out in support of the Wiley community. The outpouring of love and support is simply overwhelming. There are not adequate words to describe the depth of loss in our community right now. Please continue to pray for these amazing kids. Also pray for their families, friends and all in the community who know and love them like their own. My life is forever blessed to have known, coached, and taught these kids. I will hold their smiles and laughter in my heart forever. Each and every one is special and loved by so many.”
It was the beginning of moving forward. In looking back at the Wiley School’s Facebook updates during the next few days and weeks that followed, the guidance of the adults was a crucial element in helping the students begin to learn acceptance. They carried counseling into the school clear through the winter and into the spring and anytime any student needed some time, or needed to talk, what they needed was given. Slowly but surely, the athletes began to get back into the groove of their activities and the school healed and moved forward—but have not forgotten the Wiley 5.
The memorial located where the tragedy occurred is seen by hundreds of people daily and those who know drive by and take a moment to pray for the Wiley 5 and for the Wiley community.
This year the Wiley Softball team finally got new uniforms and it was only fitting they would have the initials of the Wiley 5 embroidered on their sleeves—XMCHB—Xander, Martin, Cait, Hunter, Braden. Forever in their hearts as they move on.
So, on Thursday, September 8th of this week, the Wiley students will have a choice as to how they want to remember their friends—XMCHB. School won’t be in session. Busses won’t run. But the school doors will be wide open as they were on September 9, 2021 when the students needed each other and their teachers more than ever. Wiley students can hang out at school, talk with staff members, friends or professionals about what they are feeling. At noon, there will be hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill at the Wiley School as they celebrate life and remember how precious it is. Then on Thursday night at 7:00 pm there will be a community vigil on the high school football field and a representative from each of the families of the Wiley 5 will be on hand—to remember—to mourn—but to also celebrate these children and the wonderful community they lived in for such a short time in.
There is one more thing the community is doing in memory of the Wiley 5 and that is a memory park located just southeast of the Rivals C-Store in Wiley. The park has benches and landscaping, and most importantly, a path that leads from the school to the C-Store that the Wiley students will take each day at noon when it’s time to get some lunch or each day after practice when it’s time to get cooled off. It’s a special place they’ll be passing through for years to come, and at least sometimes sending a prayer up to XMCHB.