KILLINGLY — Amid the coronavirus cases that have climbed into the thousands in our state, there is a small pocket in Northeastern Connecticut, the Quiet Corner, where the numbers have been mercifully low. As of Friday, Killingly had only two people test positive for the disease while the surrounding five towns had reported a total of six.
There is comfort, even if it proves temporary, in those numbers. Yet no mask, no ventilator, no cocktail of malarial medications can inoculate us from the inevitabilities of human life. No one talks much about that these days. The focus understandably is laser-sharp on the growing plague of COVID-19.
Still, the great joys of birth, of laughing children hugging their parents and all of them hugging the family dog continues. And, so does tragedy beyond the coronavirus. This is one of those stories, a story of friendship, love, tragedy that has left young and old alike in this town of 17,000 in the Quiet Corner with great heartache.
The police report will show that Chace Wood was behind the wheel when his car slammed into a tree on South Killingly Road in Foster, R.I., around 11:45 on the night of March 25. His older brother Hunter survived the crash.
Wood, 22, was a two-sport athlete at Killingly. He played basketball. He was a senior captain on the 2015 Killingly football team that went to the state playoffs for the first time in two decades and set the table for five consecutive runs to at least the CIAC semifinals. Wood served as an assistant coach on Chad Neal’s staff the past three years. He was part of the memorable 2017 state championship run.
Wood was set to graduate in May from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in physical education. He was finishing up his student teaching. At a time in our society when everyone seems to want to get out of officiating high school sports, he already had started working freshman and junior varsity basketball games. He wanted to teach. He wanted to coach. He wanted to live.
So what was Chace Wood like?
“He’d do everything for you and expect nothing in return,” Brendan Turner said. “There were times when I was going through tough things or couldn’t sleep and I’d text, ‘Hey, man, can we talk?’ In 15 minutes, he’d be at my house. He wouldn’t even call. He’d just come right to my house.
“Class projects, KTV, sports teams, he was super-hard working. He had so many friends in high school. Everybody loved him. He’d be out there trash-talking in basketball games and at the end he’d give his competitors a big hug.”
What was Chace like?
“He had this infectious smile,” Ben Desaulnier said. “Going through the last few days, talking with people, everyone just has positive memories of him. He was someone you always wanted to be around. Never had anything bad to say about anybody. Isn’t that what you want in a best friend and teammate?”
Desaulnier, Turner, Austin Caffrey, Cory Sipos, they all played some combination of football and basketball with Wood. So what was he like?
“A happy-go-lucky kid who loved to go out and play sports,” said Caffrey, another captain on the 2015 football team and one of the best running backs in the state. “He was a great athlete, but the thing that struck me was he was so knowledgeable about sports. He was like a coach on the field. It didn’t surprise me he hung up the helmet and put on the headset.”
What was Chace Wood like?
“Chace was the best of everything, best friend, best everything, honest to God,” Sipos said. “He knew how to brighten a room. Cracking jokes, showing up in a crazy outfit. Halloween was his thing. He had his priorities straight, was really responsible. You’d be out. It’d be 10 o’clock and all of a sudden he’d go, ‘Got to go home and take care of my dogs.’”
Sipos’ voice began to break. He caught himself.
“I’m going to miss that kid forever,” he said.
What was Chace Wood like?
“I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks my entire life,” Wood’s girlfriend Mackenzie Trudeau said. “With encouragement and his support, I am now the strongest I have ever been. He always helped. It didn’t matter who it was or what the situation, he had your back. He was the most loyal man to me and his friends. Our relationship was something I have never experienced.”
Trudeau’s strength, his friends’ strength, his family’s strength will be tested in every way now. Away from the constant fear of what coronavirus can do to us collectively in Connecticut, other sorrows continue in each of our towns, leaving us to ask the hardest question of all. Why are young people taken from us too soon? On Monday night, Middletown High students Sophia Rae Brancaccio, 14, and Chloe Russell, 16, were killed in a crash on Route 9 in Cromwell. Sophia was hit by a motorist who fled. There are GoFundMe pages for Sophia, Chloe, Chace. Funeral costs, daily needs, do not disappear. Neither should their memory.
Desaulnier’s girlfriend Sydney Guari arrived at his family’s home around 6 a.m. on March 26 to wake him with the tragic news. Sydney found out because Hunter Wood’s girlfriend is best friends with her sister.
“She scared the hell out of me,” said Desaulnier, who at 22 is Killingly’s head baseball coach. “At first, you’re like, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’ You have no idea what’s going on.”
Desaulnier gathered himself, jumped in his car and drove to Turner’s apartment a couple of towns over in Hampton. He wasn’t sure if Turner knew. If not, he wanted to tell him in person. There was a group of 10 guys, tighter than tight and Desaulnier, Turner and Wood were tightest of all. It was 6:50 a.m. when Deasaulnier reached his destination.
Turner had just gotten up. There were late night text messages from Chace’s girlfriend, Hunter’s girlfriend, asking if they had seen Chace. Suddenly, the phone rang.
“It was my birthday, it was Mr. Wood,” Turner said. “I said, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ I thought he was calling me up to wish me a happy birthday. His family was always the first to give me a call.
“He said, ‘Hey, B.,’ and then I could barely understand him. I began to connect the dots. It hit me. Oh, my God. I didn’t know what to do.”
Turner stumbled from his bedroom and as soon as he sat down in the kitchen, Desaulnier walked through the door. He saw his buddy was distraught. Thirty seconds later, his own phone rang. It was Lance Wood.
“It was surreal,” Desaulnier said. “Mr. Wood said he knew Chace would want the two of us to know from him. He asked us if we’d let everyone else know. He was really broken up. It was one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had in my life.”
Desaulnier and Turner went through their phone contacts and called everyone who needed to know. Friends from Killingly, friends Desaulnier and Wood made at Eastern Connecticut. Every day the two would meet at 7 a.m. in the commuter lot on Route 6 across from the Brooklyn Correctional Institution and make the drive to Willimantic together. The calls went on for a good 90 minutes.
“It was like relieving the nightmare over and over again,” Desaulnier said. “But Chase meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Caffrey and Josh Angel, who live with Turner, were already driving to work. They immediately returned. Friends didn’t want to further burden the Wood family. So they began to arrive at Turner’s apartment. They wanted to be there for each other, to hug each other, to make sure they were OK. By 9:30, there were 15-20 people. Forty to 50 people would stream through during the course of the day. Not wise certainly given the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, but how can one legislate grief among 22-year-olds?
“As much as everyone was upset, there was still that aspect that there really can’t be this many people here,” Desaulnier said. “I’d be lying to say I didn’t think about it, but what do you do, man? There’s obviously no good time for something like this to happen, but this is definitely the worst time.”
“We were reminiscing about his life, celebrating Chase’s greatness, honestly it was unbelievable,” Turner said. “At that point, in our heads, we’re not worried about something as big as coronavirus. We’re worried about something so personal to us.”
Sipos knew Wood from the second grade. Caffrey and Wood played on the same football team from the youth league Packers to the state high school semifinals.
“Every year from eight to 18,” said Caffrey, who went on to play at the University of New Haven before concussions added up. “That’s forever.”
Desaulnier moved to Connecticut from Cape Cod in seventh grade. He went to a rec basketball tryout. Chace and his dad were there and recruited him to play on a travel team. A group of nine would play together through senior year.
Turner met Wood in the sixth grade, although it wasn’t until the ninth they grew close.
“It got to the point where I was over his house every weekend,” Turner said. “His parents even set up a room for me there.”
Mackenzie Trudeau met Wood seven years ago. He always had a certain charm, she decided. When they reconnected a year ago the bond was instant, the love immediate.
“We did everything together,” Trudeau said. “We were inseparable. He was the light of my life and when I found out about the accident my entire world went dark.”
It still was too painful, too traumatic for her to describe how she found out.
“The only way I have found any comfort is the support of his amazing friends,” Trudeau said. “Chace has the best friends in the world. When they found out about the accident, every single one of them flocked to me. Chace did everything he could to bring people together. Now that he is in heaven, he has brought us all together and we all bonded over the unique love we each had for him.”
Wood’s uncle planted a cross at the accident site. A coach’s whistle was hung from it. A Killingly football helmet was placed on top of the vertical board.
Desaulnier told himself he wasn’t going to go out to the accident site. Simple as that. But he couldn’t sleep Sunday night. He can’t explain exactly why, but he decided to drive out to South Killingly Road in Foster. He sat there alone in the dark for 15 minutes.
Turner had no intention of finding that cross, either.
“I was telling myself I needed a lot of time, I didn’t want to visit the site,” Turner said. “Even when my grandfather passed, I didn’t go to the site. It was weird. It was late. And I’m like, ‘I need to go.’ Something is telling me to go. Screw everything, I’m going on my own.
“It was around 12:45 a.m. when I pulled up and saw a car blinker.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, crap. Someone else is there.’ ”
It was Ben Desaulnier. Turner knocked on his window. Ben got out. He gave him a hug. They stood in there in silence for 20 minutes at the place where their best friend died.
“We were lost in the moment,” Turner said.
“You felt like something was there,” Desaulnier said.
They got in Ben’s car and they talked until nearly 2 a.m. They laughed. They cried.
“Benny is such a strong person, he has been through a lot himself,” Turner said. “He needs to be by himself sometimes, to think about things. Showing up to be there for each other — out of nowhere — it was something that brought us even closer together.”
The funeral for Chace Wood was Saturday at St. James Church in Danielson.
“It breaks my heart that the services have to be limited to a certain amount of people,” Mackenzie Trudeau said, recognizing hundreds would have attended. “It is the worst pain to have to bury the love of your life at such a young age. There is no bright side to it. We are all just praying that Chace has a bigger purpose in heaven.
“I love him to the end of time.”
There is an extraordinary priest at St. James, the Rev. John O’Neill. As Desaulnier said, he singlehandedly has defied the odds to keep a Catholic elementary school open in Northeast Connecticut. A man of great resourcefulness, Father John figured out a way to fit two more into the funeral.
Ben Desaulnier and Brendan Turner were the altar servers for their best friend.