Farmingdale High School hosted its first holiday show since losing beloved band leader Gina Pellettiere. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp, Drew Singh; Kendall Rodriguez

The band at dress rehearsal this month seemed, at first, unchanged. There was teenage chatter and a cacophonous warmup before dozens of high-level Farmingdale High School musicians snapped into the swing rhythm of a Christmas tune.

But the band — both the young people who play and the educators who guide — has changed, and deep into this rehearsal, a music teacher softly asked a girl in a neck brace: “You good?”

Three months after the crash of a rented charter bus upstate carrying members of the Farmingdale High marching band and staff to a weekend band camp, everyone, "to some degree, is struggling with the trauma of that day and all that came in the aftermath,” district Superintendent Paul Defendini said.

The Sept. 21 crash on Interstate 84 in Orange County killed band director Gina Pellettiere, 43, and longtime chaperone Beatrice Ferrari, 77. The bus driver was ejected but survived. Some students were hospitalized for weeks with bone fractures and internal injuries. Doctors said one girl narrowly escaped paralysis.

Several families have sued the bus company, the driver, or the school district over the crash. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation is ongoing.

Most musicians who were hurt have returned to school, but others follow a hybrid schedule that includes remote classes. Some are taking all classes remotely. Almost all who have returned to in-person schooling have continued with the band, Defendini said.

Administrators did not make any of the musicians available for interviews, but symphonic band director Matthew DeMasi said some members felt Pellettiere's loss acutely. She’d worked with the band daily during the school year and taken her musicians on trips like the band camp and TubaChristmas, a brass festival at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.

“There are kids grieving, and I know for a fact there are kids having a hard time being on that stage without Gina,” DeMasi said.

The district has not hired a new band director, relying instead on DeMasi and ninth-grade band director David Abrams to perform Pellettiere's duties. Administrators decided it wouldn’t have been fair to the musicians or the person chosen to lead them, said DeMasi and Abrams’ boss, Greg Warnokowski, district director of fine and performing arts. “There was no way I was going to introduce a new teacher so quickly into our bandroom,” he said.

It’s been hard, DeMasi said, partly because he misses Pellettiere, too. The feeling of loss comes over him sometimes. It overtook him as he was preparing for the first of the band’s two big winter concerts: “not having her here, her friendship, her collegiality, and in a sense, her mentorship.”

He’d shared some of what he felt with the musicians “so that the kids see it’s OK and it’s healthy to be sad and it’s OK to feel emotions. But at some point, it’s also healthy to show them there’s a job to be done, despite how you’re feeling. At the end of day, we’re still here to do what we need to do.”

Farmingdale’s educators decided early after the crash that they would hew, as much as possible, to the familiar routines of the school day. They made that choice — not unlike when they took a road trip to a Westchester hospital to thank the medical professionals who treated injured marching band members after the crash — because it seemed right.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Warnokowski said. “There’s no class in administrator school or teacher school.”

The musicians picked up their instruments again last fall. The drum majors — who lead the band on the field — led that first practice. The educators followed, Defendini and Warnokowski joining in with their horns. Performances followed at homecoming and the Newsday marching band festival, where the band drew a prolonged standing ovation.

“Not everybody is at the same place” in the recovery, Defendini said in an interview. But band “is one of the things that makes kids feel connected,” he said.

"Not even for a second” did they consider canceling the winter concerts that Pelletiere would normally conduct, Defendini said. That included the Christmas Extravaganza.

The extravaganza began when Pellettierre arrived at the school in 2006. At first, it featured the limited participation of one school administrator in one song. Under Pellettierre's directorship, the holiday event grew considerably more ornate. Pellettiere preferred lots of people, colorful sets, costumes and props for the extravaganza, DeMasi said. This year it was the "Rudolph Extravaganza," which included a prop sleigh, a snow machine and a musical arrangement, apparently no longer commercially available. DeMasi secured the arrangement by calling a high school in Alaska after viewing a performance online. There also were costumed district administrators. Warnokowski played Santa Claus and Defendini a snowman. The casting made more sense when considering that both men are musicians who played at different times in this very band decades ago when they attended Farmingdale High.

Well-wishers have given generously to help the school community heal. They have donated 300 decorated pillowcases, handmade quilts and cash, among other items. Online fundraisers raised roughly $250,000 for the injured musicians and Pellettiere's young son. Long Island pizzerias donated more than $100,000 to be divided between the injured survivors and the families of Ferrari and Pellettiere.

There have been setbacks, including last month’s deadly crash of a bus carrying a high school band in Ohio. When it happened, Farmingdale High Principal Jed Herman came flying down a campus hall so fast DeMasi said he thought there was an emergency. The district reacted fast, reopening a counseling center and canceling many planned activities that day, but the bad news traveled even faster.

“In 10 minutes, some kids had already heard the news and were texting it to each other,” DeMasi said. “Some kids weren’t bothered, but for others it was a highly emotional trigger. It brought them back to that day. It kind of stunted some of the healing.”

The school where Pellettiere spent so many hours still holds reminders of her life. The window of the office that she kept in the band room is still cluttered with photographs and bumper stickers (“Band Directors Duet Better”). The wall of the band room is still lined with emblems of success, including more than a decade’s worth of New York State School Music Association awards for the elite wind ensemble that she led.

Earlier this month, in the school auditorium before the extravaganza started, DeMasi addressed the crowd. He told the parents it was a privilege to work each day with their children. Of Pellettiere, he said: “A huge piece is missing, but we move forward in her honor.”

The band at dress rehearsal this month seemed, at first, unchanged. There was teenage chatter and a cacophonous warmup before dozens of high-level Farmingdale High School musicians snapped into the swing rhythm of a Christmas tune.

But the band — both the young people who play and the educators who guide — has changed, and deep into this rehearsal, a music teacher softly asked a girl in a neck brace: “You good?”

The Farmingdale High School band wind ensemble performs during the Farmingdale High School winter concert on Dec. 14. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Three months after the crash of a rented charter bus upstate carrying members of the Farmingdale High marching band and staff to a weekend band camp, everyone, "to some degree, is struggling with the trauma of that day and all that came in the aftermath,” district Superintendent Paul Defendini said.

The Sept. 21 crash on Interstate 84 in Orange County killed band director Gina Pellettiere, 43, and longtime chaperone Beatrice Ferrari, 77. The bus driver was ejected but survived. Some students were hospitalized for weeks with bone fractures and internal injuries. Doctors said one girl narrowly escaped paralysis.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Three months after a deadly bus crash, Farmingdale High School band members and staff continue to grieve and struggle with emotional, and in some cases, physical recovery.
  • Most musicians who were injured have returned to school, but others follow a hybrid schedule that includes remote classes. And some are taking all classes remotely.
  • Online fundraisers have raised roughly $250,000 for the injured musicians and the young son of Gina Pellettiere, the band's director who died in the Sept. 21 crash.

A loss felt acutely

Everyone, "to some degree, is struggling with the trauma of...

Everyone, "to some degree, is struggling with the trauma of that day and all that came in the aftermath,” said Farmingdale school district Superindent Paul Defendini of the mood on campus since the Sept. 21 bus crash. Credit: WCBS

Several families have sued the bus company, the driver, or the school district over the crash. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation is ongoing.

Most musicians who were hurt have returned to school, but others follow a hybrid schedule that includes remote classes. Some are taking all classes remotely. Almost all who have returned to in-person schooling have continued with the band, Defendini said.

Administrators did not make any of the musicians available for interviews, but symphonic band director Matthew DeMasi said some members felt Pellettiere's loss acutely. She’d worked with the band daily during the school year and taken her musicians on trips like the band camp and TubaChristmas, a brass festival at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.

For students, faculty and so many others in the Farmingdale...

For students, faculty and so many others in the Farmingdale High School community, the grieving continues, but so does the drive to carry on, with band chaperone Beatrice Ferrari, above, left, and director Gina Pellettiere etched in their memories. Credit: Ferrari family; Tony Lopez

“There are kids grieving, and I know for a fact there are kids having a hard time being on that stage without Gina,” DeMasi said.

The district has not hired a new band director, relying instead on DeMasi and ninth-grade band director David Abrams to perform Pellettiere's duties. Administrators decided it wouldn’t have been fair to the musicians or the person chosen to lead them, said DeMasi and Abrams’ boss, Greg Warnokowski, district director of fine and performing arts. “There was no way I was going to introduce a new teacher so quickly into our bandroom,” he said.

'It's OK to be sad' 

The marching band director position has remained unfilled since Gina Pellettiere's death. Instead, the school district has called on symphonic band director Matthew DeMasi, above, leading rehearsals earlier this month for a holiday performance. Credit: Howard Schnapp

It’s been hard, DeMasi said, partly because he misses Pellettiere, too. The feeling of loss comes over him sometimes. It overtook him as he was preparing for the first of the band’s two big winter concerts: “not having her here, her friendship, her collegiality, and in a sense, her mentorship.”

He’d shared some of what he felt with the musicians “so that the kids see it’s OK and it’s healthy to be sad and it’s OK to feel emotions. But at some point, it’s also healthy to show them there’s a job to be done, despite how you’re feeling. At the end of day, we’re still here to do what we need to do.”

Farmingdale’s educators decided early after the crash that they would hew, as much as possible, to the familiar routines of the school day. They made that choice — not unlike when they took a road trip to a Westchester hospital to thank the medical professionals who treated injured marching band members after the crash — because it seemed right.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Warnokowski said. “There’s no class in administrator school or teacher school.”

The musicians picked up their instruments again last fall. The drum majors — who lead the band on the field — led that first practice. The educators followed, Defendini and Warnokowski joining in with their horns. Performances followed at homecoming and the Newsday marching band festival, where the band drew a prolonged standing ovation.

Staying connected

The Farmingdale High School band wind ensemble performs earlier this month at the school's winter concert. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“Not everybody is at the same place” in the recovery, Defendini said in an interview. But band “is one of the things that makes kids feel connected,” he said.

"Not even for a second” did they consider canceling the winter concerts that Pelletiere would normally conduct, Defendini said. That included the Christmas Extravaganza.

The extravaganza began when Pellettierre arrived at the school in 2006. At first, it featured the limited participation of one school administrator in one song. Under Pellettierre's directorship, the holiday event grew considerably more ornate. Pellettiere preferred lots of people, colorful sets, costumes and props for the extravaganza, DeMasi said. This year it was the "Rudolph Extravaganza," which included a prop sleigh, a snow machine and a musical arrangement, apparently no longer commercially available. DeMasi secured the arrangement by calling a high school in Alaska after viewing a performance online. There also were costumed district administrators. Warnokowski played Santa Claus and Defendini a snowman. The casting made more sense when considering that both men are musicians who played at different times in this very band decades ago when they attended Farmingdale High.

Farmingdale administrators and teachers practice during rehearsals for the holiday show. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Well-wishers have given generously to help the school community heal. They have donated 300 decorated pillowcases, handmade quilts and cash, among other items. Online fundraisers raised roughly $250,000 for the injured musicians and Pellettiere's young son. Long Island pizzerias donated more than $100,000 to be divided between the injured survivors and the families of Ferrari and Pellettiere.

Dealing with setbacks

Band director Matthew DeMasi leads the Farmingdale High School band during rehearsals for the holiday show. Credit: Howard Schnapp

There have been setbacks, including last month’s deadly crash of a bus carrying a high school band in Ohio. When it happened, Farmingdale High Principal Jed Herman came flying down a campus hall so fast DeMasi said he thought there was an emergency. The district reacted fast, reopening a counseling center and canceling many planned activities that day, but the bad news traveled even faster.

“In 10 minutes, some kids had already heard the news and were texting it to each other,” DeMasi said. “Some kids weren’t bothered, but for others it was a highly emotional trigger. It brought them back to that day. It kind of stunted some of the healing.”

The school where Pellettiere spent so many hours still holds reminders of her life. The window of the office that she kept in the band room is still cluttered with photographs and bumper stickers (“Band Directors Duet Better”). The wall of the band room is still lined with emblems of success, including more than a decade’s worth of New York State School Music Association awards for the elite wind ensemble that she led.

Earlier this month, in the school auditorium before the extravaganza started, DeMasi addressed the crowd. He told the parents it was a privilege to work each day with their children. Of Pellettiere, he said: “A huge piece is missing, but we move forward in her honor.”

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