From left, Jason Nowak, Jane Nowak, Ann Hylok, Harry Hylok and Bruce Hylok, family members of some of the girls who were killed in a car accident in 1988, attend the 25th anniversary memorial at Dr. V.J. Shippy Park in Pulaski on Monday. / Lukas Keapproth/Press-Gazette Media
PULASKI — Pulaski remembers the five girls.
Dozens of residents flocked Monday evening to a village park to celebrate the lives of the young seventh-graders whose deaths 25 years ago forever changed the small close-knit community. Loved ones recalled old times they shared as guests viewed framed pictures of the girls — Brenda Hylok, Laura Karcz, Jodi Prokop, Jessica McKeefry, all 13, and Nicole Watia, 12.
The pain among the residents felt fresh, and at the center of the grief, I asked them why the memorial was important.
Time after time, they told me it was their way to keep the girls’ memories alive and hopefully heal any lasting wounds left behind after the unthinkable tragedy caused the loss of their daughters, sisters, cousins and classmates.
The girls were walking on St. Augustine Street one evening when a speeding car jumped a curb, hit them and later slammed into a tree Oct. 7, 1988. Hundreds of residents gathered at the crash scene.
The driver was then 17-year-old Scott Karcz, who was riding with his 11-year-old sister Tina. Both survived, and it was later discovered Scott, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy, was suffering a seizure when the crash occurred. He was not charged in the case.
Many in the community said they do not blame him, and those who once had later said he is forgiven. However, many neighbors still struggle with the loss and continue searching for an explanation of why this had to happen.
“There’s this huge hurt in Pulaski over this,” said organizer Mary Kay Elsner, who said she was best friends with Nicole. “Trying to make sense of the fact that she died when I was 12 was the worst thing ever.”
About 3,500 people now live in Pulaski, almost double the population back in 1988.
In what is common these days, the event, which had the warm feel of a family cookout, was organized via Facebook. Many members posted their favorite moments with the girls.
Monday’s gathering was held at Dr. V.J. Shippy Park, where a memorial for the girls was previously installed. It took no time to see just how special the girls were — because they reminded me so much of anyone’s daughters or best friends.
Elsner, now 37, recalled she and Nicole’s sleepovers when they would gush about boys and practice kissing on their hands. She even boasted about a sixth-grade rap the duo performed about Egyptian pharaoh King Tut to the beat of the Beastie Boys’ classic “Paul Revere.” Elsner even played a recording of Nicole singing “Could’ve Been” by former pop singer Tiffany.
Many of the estimated 150 guests at the memorial, like Elsner, embraced with tearful eyes while sharing fun stories about their girls.
Ann Hylok thought back to special times she shared with her daughter Brenda, like when the girl found a passion by decorating an ugly Christmas tree, and when she convinced her mom to buy the family chicken only to eat all the pieces herself.
“You never forget when you have a child that you lose,” she said. “You take it a day at a time.”
Five white doves to represent each of the girls were released into the sky at the commemoration. Residents sobbed and hugged to the sound of Christian music group Point of Grace’s “How You Live,” which urges listeners to live life to the fullest with no regrets.
Kay Kettleson, Laura Karcz’s mom, said her daughter did just that as an aspiring actress who loved to entertain others. She came to the memorial to see former neighbors but admitted it brought back some sad memories.
“I can still hear her voice,” she said referencing tapes she sometimes listens to of her daughter singing.
Kettleson reminded others experiencing loss to trust that the pain eases up as the years go by.
“I have grandchildren now,” she added, “so I have lots to look forward to.”
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