Merrimack College basketball team thanks Darien Depot for safe haven after accident
The Depot Youth Center in Darien is used to being a comfort zone for Darien youth. But it became much more than that when 16 college athletes and their coach took refuge there Friday night after their team bus went off the road on I-95. The bus came to rest at the Noroton Heights Train Station.
The athletes in Merrimack College’s women’s basketball team in North Andover, Mass. ranged in age from 18 to 25.
According to their schedule, the team was heading to Long Island to take on Long Island University at 1 p.m. Saturday.
According to a report from the state police, the bus, listed as a 2012 Prevost H3-45 was traveling south on I-95 in the right lane at approximate 9 p.m. when it apparently traveled off the roadway, to the right, striking a metal link fence and small bushes. It came to a final stop in the Noroton Heights Train Station.
No injuries were reported. The driver was the only one taken to the hospital, and state police said he received a verbal warning for failure to maintain his proper lane.
The women, whose hometowns are listed throughout the East Coast, including New York, New Hamsphire, Rhode Island and Massaschusetts, were taken in to The Depot, which shares its parking lot with the Noroton Heights Train Station.
“They were very shaken up and freezing,” said Depot program director Janice Marzano.
The Depot was having an event for seventh and eighth graders at the time the basketball players arrived, escorted by state and Darien police.
Merrimack College basketball coach Monique LeBlanc spoke with The Darien Times Sunday and said The Depot was invaluable.
“Once we were all off the bus after the accident, it was quickly clear there wasn’t an immediate fix, the police officers suggested the teen center,” LeBlanc said.
“They said they’d love to have you,” she said.
The Depot was a warm place to wait while the team figured out alternative plans for lodging and transportation to get to Long Island University, their game on Saturday.
“We were so grateful,” LeBlanc said.
It took a mini-bus and several police cars to escort the team and coach to The Depot.
“It was amazing. That place, the energy of the group of kids excited to see our players. It was exactly what they needed. It cleared everyone’s heads,” LeBlanc said. The team stayed locally and another bus was sent from the school in the morning.
Marzano said the seventh and eighth grade students helped the players more than they realized — just by being themselves.
“They were asking them all kinds of questions about being ‘real’ basketball players and what college was like,” she said. The conversation helped the tired and upset young women, she said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said she arrived toward the end of the team’s time at The Depot but said it was “fantastic” the youth center was there as a respite.
“The girls were really upset and shaken up by the incident and it really helped — the coach was very grateful,” Stevenson said.
“The young kids who were at The Depot, without knowing they did it, were able to take the basketball team’s minds off of it. It was a really nice part of a very difficult story that could have ended up tragically.”
Merrimack ended up beating LIU 66 to 63, despite the evening’s challenges and many of the team exhausted.
“I think they put everything they had into that game. LIU is a good team. There were 19 lead changes and a lot of back and forth,” LeBlanc said.
Asked what the team wanted to say to The Depot, LeBlanc said, “For sure, it would be thanks for making us feel so welcome and extending your community to ours.”
“Up in our college community, part of our Augustinian values, we tend to brag about how great our community is, and to be away from home and experience the same community feeling — it was exactly what we want to be part of — it was really great. They made us feel so welcome,” she said.
Stevenson said it was a “miracle” that no one was hurt, and it was miracle no vehicles in the parking lot were hit.
“It was fantastic that The Depot was able to play a unique and unexpected role. It was so fortunate no one was hurt. It was the best outcome of a tough situation,” she said.