Tragedy, again (Newsday cover story)
A budding firefighter who responded to a crash that killed four young people dies a day later in his sleep
By Shomial Ahmad
Volunteer firefighter Bobby Getschel stayed up into the early morning hours, making sure all the candles from a vigil for a classmate killed in a car crash had been extinguished.
The 18-year-old then caught a quick nap Thursday morning, took a Regents exam, and went back to bed. He never woke up.
Getschel, who had open-heart surgery in 2001, died one day after fellow graduating senior Kevin McArthur, also 18, was among four young Elmont residents killed in a horrific accident. Getschel, whose cause of death has yet to be determined, had responded to the scene of the crash in Floral Park early Wednesday.
The second death in two days of a member of Floral Park Memorial High's Class of 2006 shocked the close-knit school, which had planned a Tuesday morning memorial service for McArthur that now will include Getschel. Both families will receive their loved ones' high school diplomas.
Hundreds of students gathered Thursday night at a memorial for Getschel in the village square, where one girl wrote with a black marker on posterboard, "Miss you Kevin. I hope you find Bobby up there."
Students at Floral Park were not surprised that its newspaper staff honored Getschel with a front-page profile that said his recognition was "long overdue."
But on Thursday, the day the issue was distributed, his classmates were shocked to hear that Getschel, whose generosity and positive energy had touched so many lives, had unexpectedly died.
Getschel died in his sleep, said his father, who found him a little after 1 p.m.
"I went over and said, 'Bobby, wake up,'" said his father, also named Robert Getschel. "He was cold and I called 911."
An autopsy did not immediately reveal a cause of death, his father said. Before he had his operation in 2001, Bobby was pale and his lips blue and he was coughing a lot, his father said. The family found out he had a connective tissue disorder, and with open-heart surgery doctors fixed one valve. After the operation, he had few physical problems, his father said.
At a time when seniors should be looking forward to prom and graduation, they are grappling with the deaths of their friends. "Once, twice, it doesn't matter," said Principal Kathleen Sottile. "It devastates, no matter what."
McArthur died in a Wednesday morning car crash on Plainfield Avenue. Driver Max-Lesly Auguste, 19, and passengers Michael Richardson, 20, and Nnaya Adingupu, 16, also died.
Aaron Hourie-Richardson, a sophomore at the school, survived and remains hospitalized with broken legs.
Several hours after the crash, Bobby Getschel passed out copies of a Newsday.com article to his classmates, informing them of McArthur's death.
That night, he also went to a vigil for McArthur.
Bobby's mother, Pietrina Getschel, sat at her dining room table, filled with scrapbooks of her son's life.
Getschel had just visited his cardiologist for a checkup, and his doctor had said he was fine and that his next visit should be in a year, his father said.
"I used to tell him every day, 'I love you. I love you,'" Pietrina Getschel, 55, said, crying.
Next Saturday, Bobby would have graduated from high school. Next month, he would have made his first trip to his mother's hometown in Italy.
This fall, he would have enrolled in John Jay College of Criminal Justice in pursuit of his dream to become a Nassau County police officer.
The Floral Park Fire Department, where Getschel was just approved to be a rescuer, responded to the "male not breathing" call Thursday- and firefighters were stunned to see one of their own. "Devastated," said Everett Ulmer, a chief at the department, recalling the moment he saw Getschel, one of his most committed volunteers.
Several memorial services will be held for Getschel at New Hyde Park this weekend and Monday. On Sunday at 8 p.m., the Floral Park Fire Department will honor him as a full firefighter. Memorial services for McArthur will be Wednesday.
Staff writer Zachary R. Dowdy contributed to this story.
GRAPHIC: 1) Newsday Photo/Alan Raia-Pietrina and Robert Getschel mourn the loss of their son Bobbyas they look through scrapbooks of his life Friday. 2) Photo-Bobby Getschel, 18COVER:1 Week, 2 Tragedies in Floral Park. Mouring Again. Teen firefighter who helped at fatal crash dies a day later in his sleep. Newsday Photo / Alan Raia - Pietrina Getschel with a photo of her son Bobby, 18, who was about to graduate from Floral Park Memorial High School.