Tragedy in Lot D

New scrutiny of the annual student pregame party.

Thomas Kaplan ’10, ’10MA, is a reporter in the Albany bureau of the New York Times.

Associated Press

Associated Press

A U-Haul truck (right in photo) went out of control in Lot D before the Yale-Harvard game, striking three women before crashing into two parked trucks. One of the women died in the accident. View full image

For years, as reliably as Yale and Harvard football players have readied themselves for The Game, administrators at both schools have prepared for their own challenge: The Tailgate. A conflagration of school spirit and alcohol, the partying among students before the football game—and during it—has resulted in more than a few hospital visits in years past, and officials have imposed increasingly complex rules in an effort to ensure safety.

Yale officials are now returning to the drawing board yet again. The festivities before this year’s Game on November 19 saw the kind of tragedy they have dreaded for years: a 30-year-old woman was killed, and two other people were injured, after a U-Haul truck bound for a fraternity tailgate party sped out of control and ran into a crowd.

The accident cast a pall over the normally raucous weekend. And although there is nothing to suggest that alcohol—the main source of concern about tailgating over the years—played any role in the tragedy, the incident is prompting renewed consideration of a dilemma that has troubled administrators for years: how to stage a safe tailgate.

On the morning of The Game, Brendan Ross ’13 was tasked with driving the U-Haul truck that members of his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, had rented to haul the necessary provisions—including several beer kegs—to the tailgate. His mission was not unusual; fraternities and sororities, as well as residential colleges and other groups, frequently rent box trucks to haul grills, coolers, and kegs to the Bowl. (U-Haul rents to customers 18 or older with a valid driver’s license.)

At the same time, Nancy Barry, a fashion designer from Salem, Massachusetts, was visiting Yale to spend time with an old high school friend, Sarah Short ’13MBA. They were among the more than 55,000 who descended on the Bowl this year.

Details remain sketchy on how their paths crossed in Lot D, the parking lot where most of the undergraduate tailgates take place. According to witnesses and investigators, Ross had stopped at a checkpoint at the entrance to the tailgate, like the U-Haul trucks before him. When he turned into the grassy tailgate area and pulled away around 9:40 a.m., the truck accelerated. It struck Barry and her friend Short, 31, as well as Elizabeth Dernbach, 23, a computer lab assistant at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, before crashing into two parked U-Haul trucks.

Barry was rushed to Yale–New Haven Hospital and pronounced dead barely a half hour later. (Short and Dernbach were also hospitalized.) Ross passed a field sobriety test at the scene of the accident, and the New Haven Police Department impounded the U-Haul truck for forensic testing.

A line of yellow police tape blocked the site of the accident from the rest of the tailgate, but the party continued despite the accident. Many students said they assumed it was a fender bender.

After the accident, Ross, a history major from St. Louis, retained New Haven lawyer William F. Dow III ’63. Dow asserts that the accident “appears to be the result of a vehicle malfunction.” Pete Sciortino, the president of the U-Haul Company of Connecticut, disputes that, calling Dow’s claim “reckless, inappropriate, and disrespectful.” David Hartman, a spokesman for the New Haven Police Department, says investigators are still working on the case.

While the annual tailgate at The Game may be most famous for the upscale, linen-tablecloth celebrations staged by alumni, the student tailgate has evolved in recent years into a jumble of letter sweaters, red plastic beer cups, and pulsating music, with the entire spectacle penned inside a muddy field and surrounded by U-Haul trucks.

The partying leaves students bleary-eyed, and not often interested in football. But the scene is beloved, and administrators are met with protests when they try to rein in the festivities. Harvard has been more aggressive in its regulations, banning U-Haul trucks and beer kegs in recent years, and the school generally is seen by students as stricter about limiting the flow of alcohol at the tailgate.

But Yale has its own set of rules. In 2005, alumni protested a rule that shut down tailgating at halftime; this year, students griped about a new system requiring wristbands meant to signify who was of legal drinking age.

The ubiquitous U-Haul trucks have been questioned in the past for a number of reasons: Harvard administrators said they were causing damage to the fields where the tailgate was held, and students have also developed an ill-advised habit of climbing the trucks and turning them into dance floors. In 2007, Yale considered banning the trucks, but the Yale College Council complained that such a prohibition would make it hard to bring food and beverages to the tailgate. The administration ultimately relented.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy says administrators are assessing possible changes to tailgate rules in light of the accident. The use of U-Haul trucks and traffic flow at the tailgate site are among the issues they are considering. “We always want to allow for students and other fans to gather and socialize at the games in a safe manner,” Conroy says. “We will share any policy changes when they are finalized.”

Brandon Levin ’13, the president of the Yale College Council, says that a “delicate balance” must be struck in any new tailgate regulations. “We want everyone to have a fun and safe time, and I think finding ways in which the safe actions overlap with the fun actions—that’s the spot on the Venn diagram that we aim to hit.”

Ironically, a ban on U-Hauls might have prevented this year’s accident, but not for the reasons they’ve usually been opposed. Whatever the cause of the accident turns out to be, Yale and other schools now have new concerns about student tailgating to add to the old ones.  

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