Amber Stulsky was supposed to be one of 59 fifth-graders celebrating the first day of classes Wednesday at Southold Elementary School. Instead, classmates were heartbroken to learn the 11-year-old, a well-liked girl from Greenport, had been killed in a car accident the night before in her hometown.
Southold Union Free School District Superintendent David Gamberg said he first heard the news in a phone call at 5:45 Wednesday morning. And just like that, he said, the mood for the first day of school changed to a somber one.
"We're a small, tight-knit community," he said, where people know each other, where the kids have grown up together. So Gamberg and the staff and students at Southold Elementary School were shaken to the core.
"They're distraught, absolutely," the superintendent said.
Gamberg said there are about 350 students in the elementary school, which runs from prekindergarten to sixth grade. He said Amber had transferred to Southold from the neighboring Mattituck-Cutchogue school district sometime around the second grade, and that she was well-known and well-liked by teachers and fellow students.
Early Wednesday morning he went to help meet stunned students as they arrived for the first day. "In some ways, there are no words at a time like this," Gamberg said. "And in other ways you are reminded that you are here for one another."
Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said Amber had been a rear-seat passenger in a 2003 Mercury Sable being driven by her mother, Rachel Smith, 32, of Greenport, east on County Road 48, also known as the North Road, at 8:18 p.m. Tuesday when their car was struck by a 2004 Infiniti attempting to turn left onto the westbound roadway from Chapel Lane.
Amber was taken to Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, where, police said, she died from her injuries.
Neither Smith nor the driver of the Infiniti, who wasn't charged, were seriously hurt in the crash, Flatley said. Both vehicles were impounded for safety checks, and the investigation into the accident is ongoing, but Flatley said initial indications are there was no criminality involved.
"It appears it was just a freak accident, where one driver just didn't see the other vehicle," Flatley said.
On Tuesday, Gamberg said, the school staff had met in anticipation of the start of the new year. Midmorning Wednesday, he said, he had just finished the terrible task of writing a letter to district parents informing them of the tragedy.
Gamberg, who also is superintendent of the neighboring Greenport Union Free School District, said school psychologists, guidance counselors and social workers would be available all week to meet with students to talk about it.
He said that before midmorning he also had heard from a host of officials from other East End districts, among them Montauk and Shelter Island, offering support and assistance for students and his staff.
"The first day of school is a joyous time," Gamberg said. " … It's an exciting time. Then, at the same time, this tragic reality is there.
"You want to be there for the schoolchildren who are unaware of what this all means. Our younger children, the kindergarten students, the first-graders. They don't understand. And so for them a sense of normalcy is also important. At the same time, you want to be there for the students who are affected by the situation, to provide support for them, to make sure they understand that we're there for them."