Recalling a life found, then tragically lost

'Hopefully, Travis has taught many of his peers a valuable lesson.'

The death of Travis W. Hennigar has focused attention on the problem of underage drinking.
A candle burns in a memorial for Travis Hennigar near the spot on Grand Island where his car left West River Parkway and plunged into the Niagara River.
News Staff Reporter

Early Sunday morning, at 4:30, Dr. Grant Hennigar decided to visit the dark and chilly Grand Island crash site, exactly one week after his 19-year-old son, Travis, lost his life driving into the Niagara River.

About 18 hours after his son's memorial service, Hennigar wanted to see what the conditions were like during the last moments of Travis' life, before his speeding vehicle flew off the road and into the river.

"To my surprise, I found 30 people there at the end of Bedell Road, standing with candles, hugging each other in the bitter cold," he said Monday. "I don't understand why they were out there, when they should have been home in bed, after the funeral, after there had been closure. It was a total shock to me."

After his presumed death on the morning of Feb. 10, Travis W. Hennigar has provided lots of surprises for his family, with all the lives he touched in his 19 years, they say.

Family members haven't tried to portray Travis as any saint, though.

This was a young man who had struggled academically, who never passed freshman English, who never graduated from high school. But in the last nine months of his life, he had turned things around, studying for the GED high school equivalency test on his own, passing it and then enrolling full time at Erie Community College.

"The whole family is just so saddened," the elder Hennigar said in his office Monday afternoon. "We waited 19 years for him to turn his life around. We started feeling so proud of him, and then this tragedy struck."

Travis' death has had ripple effects that go far beyond his family, his friends and the Grand Island community.

The incident has opened up questions about underage drinking and has led to the suspension of all activities in University at Buffalo fraternities, after allegations that Travis and his passenger - who survived - had been drinking at a fraternity party.

His father, a highly respected Grand Island dentist, wouldn't discuss anything about the accident or the events preceding it, leaving it to the professionals to determine exactly what happened.

But he did talk about the lessons that can be learned from his son's death, including the choices that young people make.

"Hopefully, Travis has taught many of his peers a valuable lesson, a lesson about choices," he said.

If they want to drive fast, he said, they should think about Travis; if they want to live life on the edge, they should think about Travis.

Hennigar's advice to young people: "Life is full of choices. Make the right choices."

Like any parent with a teenage driver, the elder Hennigar worried about his son. The truth was that Travis liked to speed. His father even gave him "the Bedell Road speech," warning him about the perils of the short, dark road at the river's edge.

The Hennigars now face the worst pain any parent can experience - the loss of a child. But their loss is compounded by two other factors: all the negative connotations about the way he died and the fact that his body has not been recovered.

Grant Hennigar said he can live with the fact that his son's body remains missing in the river.

"I feel like it's a burial at sea; he's buried in the river," he said. "I just have vivid, pleasant memories of him, and that's good enough for me. It's out of my control."

Here are some of those memories and surprises, in addition to coming across the 30 people who paid tribute to him early Sunday morning:

The family expected about 250 people to attend his memorial service Saturday. Nine hundred showed up.

Travis had a great-aunt, in her 70s, who doesn't drive. Without any prompting, he'd show up at her house regularly to take her on her errands.

Several months ago, Travis confronted an adult friend, persuading that person to go to Alcoholics Anonymous.

After his death, a high school acquaintance whom Travis had recently befriended stayed up all night, spending 11 hours writing a poem in tribute to his late friend.

Two days before Travis died, his father pulled into his driveway and saw Travis washing his own car, his hands almost numb with cold. He offered to wash his father's car. Hennigar balked, but Travis insisted.

"I'll always be thankful I had such a nice memory of him the last time I saw him," his father said.

Two days later, Travis' father and his mother, Jennie, were at their daughter's college hockey game in Massachusetts when they received the horrible phone call, just before the start of the game between Brittany Hennigar's Rochester Institute of Technology team and Holy Cross.

Parents from both teams - many of them strangers - hugged the Hennigars. One man, a stranger, even offered to drive them back to Buffalo.

Instead, Hennigar drove back home, at 55 mph and in the right-hand lane, never passing anyone - in a trance.

Grant Hennigar agreed to talk, partly to thank people - from close friends to strangers - who have been so kind to the family since Travis' death, including the rescuers who battled in vain to find his body.

"The love, support, thoughtfulness and kindness of people - I'll never forget for the rest of my life," he said. "I'll never be able to repay the kindness from this community."

While some will scoff at any attempt to portray Travis as anything but a wild and reckless teen who died as he lived, his father painted a different picture.

The change in Travis was no more evident than during the vast power outage that hit Western New York - little more than a week before he died.

The power was out at both his parents' homes. So Travis, never one to spend much time hitting the books when the lights had been on, persuaded his father to open his dental office.

For 31/2 hours, without a break, Travis sat in the office studying for his GED exam, a young man who finally had some goals, making up for some of the time he had wasted as a young student.

His father's reaction:

"I was just overwhelmed with pride."