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Pelican Rapids band director Sean Fitzsimmons receives a hug and an angel of courage from senior band member Amy Davenport. (David Samson/The Forum)

Residents, students gather to remember Pelican Rapids teen who died last year in crash

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PELICAN RAPIDS - Much has changed since shaken students and residents gathered in the high school gym here almost a year ago, in the aftermath of a fatal April 5 band trip bus crash.

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Band members, some of whom were injured in the accident, have grown closer. After months of insomnia and poor appetite, band director Sean Fitzsimmons shed 30 pounds. In the chartered bus that ferried the band back from Chicago, Jessica Weishair, the 16-year-old flute player who died near Albertville, Minn., sat just two rows behind him.

When he got cranky, Fitzsimmons said, "Jessica would give me that cool laugh and amazing smile, and instantly my spirits would be rejuvenated."

Students and residents packed the gym again Friday to remember Jessica and celebrate the community's resilience in the face of tragedy. Jessica's parents, Kim and Stacy, who stayed away from a prayer service here a year ago, were in the audience this time.

"We asked Jessica this morning what we should do," said Stacy before the event, "and she said we should go."

The Weishairs' pastor, the Rev. Roger Rotvold, said he was glad to see them at the sort of community event they've mostly shunned, wary of displaying their grief too publicly: "They've carried themselves in such a dignified way through this very difficult time."

The 1½-hour program was punctuated by moments of aching bitter-sweetness. Amy Davenport, a senior who suffered broken vertebrae in the crash, presented a choked-up Fitzsimmons with an angel of courage statuette.

The band played a soaring "Beautiful Savior," and a quartet of Jessica's classmates sang a delicate "Be Thou My Vision." A photo slide show, populated with smiling faces, conjured happy memories of the Chicago trip.

A Weishair family friend read a moving message from the family, which spoke of memories too hazy to replay on demand and others that barge in, vivid and unbidden. "This year has passed painfully slowly for us, and yet this anniversary has come way too quickly," it said.

Last week, band students passed by the crash site off Interstate 94 together for the first time. On the way back from the Twin Cities after yet another state basketball victory, they took the Albertville exit near that spot. Their bus - bearing a "Happy 17th birthday, Jessica!" sign to mark the March 25 occasion - slowed down and they fell silent.

"It was really a chance for us to remember together," said Michaela Gray, who sat next to Jessica on the Chicago trip.

Not that they've forgotten. Jessica was a resident math wiz at the school, and Michaela still looks up from her homework and thinks, "Oh, I should ask Jessica for help."

Counselor Marlys Ebersviller said band students coped remarkably: The school has seen no

spike in absences or acting out, common in the wake of trauma.

She told members they were her heroes.

"We are so relieved you made it home," Ebersviller said. "We just wish there was one more band member with you."

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