Stockbridge — In those moments where destiny appears to have violently stamped its mark, we feel the need to look back to see why and how, to see the signposts along the way, or to find ways it could have been altered.
In this case it is a weeping willow, and a road. A narrow winding country road, one most emblematic of the Berkshires, cutting through the old estates from Stockbridge to Lenox and, with promises of rest and music and fresh air, carrying people to Stockbridge Bowl and beyond to the hedgerows of Tanglewood.
But coming the other way, from Lenox, in the early morning hours after Cinco de Mayo, Prospect Hill Road was deadly for a young man, a beloved son of the Berkshires, a respected Great Barrington Police Officer, who after an off-duty night of fun and drinking with friends at the Olde Heritage Tavern in Lenox, left the road, crashed through a fence and hit the massive willow, which bore scant evidence of the 2 a.m. impact.
There are no skid marks. And it is unclear how fast 25-year-old Ryan Storti was going on the wet road. Those details will become known when the State Police complete their accident investigation that includes a reconstruction of the event. But driving the route, it is not hard to see how it happened.
Before he hit the tree, Storti would have had to navigate a series of corkscrew turns, not to mention a road in which a moment of inattention can land one into any number of thorns: utility poles and trees close to the road; driveways, fences, and for nearly the entire stretch, sloping embankments of different depths. The place where Storti went off the road was one of the steeper slopes in front of Orleton Farm, and the gradual bend of the road to the left just before the tree could give the appearance of a straightaway.
The earth is swampy there, and the tire tracks show a clear path into the willow, where flowers and a cross now mark it.
Newly appointed Stockbridge Police Chief Darrell Fennelly said he wanted to make it clear his department was not “hiding anything,” but said he did not want to release the initial police report until the full investigation was complete. He said Massachusetts State Police were handling the remainder of the investigation and accident reconstruction, which now rests with the Berkshire County District Attorney’s office. DA spokesperson Fred Lantz confirmed that the report was not yet complete and so could not be released. It is unclear whether a toxicology report was made and when that will be released.
It all shines a light on drinking and driving, and also on the complicated matter of restaurant and bar owner responsibility.
The crash came a week after Michael’s Restaurant here had its liquor license suspended for 50 days after a deadly crash in which young patrons hit a utility pole in Great Barrington 17 minutes after they left the bar. Police say owner Michael Abdalla had tampered with the bar’s video surveillance after learning of the crash. Michael’s was also accused of serving alcohol to an intoxicated person and a minor.
We don’t know what happened at the Heritage. Owner John McNinch told The Edge that his bar’s video surveillance was indeed with the police now. He also said while he was there at the beginning of the night, he had to go to the airport later, so didn’t see Storti. The investigation is ongoing, and in time details will be revealed, details that will hopefully show young people in the Berkshires, with its many bars and liquor stores, what can happen.
That said, many of us, especially when we were in our twenties, have been drunk at the wheel or been a passenger in a car where the driver was drunk. Many wonder how they survived their younger years. When something goes wrong the error can affect multiple lives, as we saw in this Great Barrington crash last year.
But a police officer is still a man, a woman, a person; one capable of error, of fun, of love, of joy, and also susceptible to heartbreak just as Ryan Storti’s brothers at the Great Barrington Police Department are now. And it is that humanity and range that gives our police the compassion to deal with the rest of us. We have all been beneficiaries of it in some way.
As the police cortege and hearse carrying Storti inched through Great Barrington last Friday, his fellow officers walking alongside, Rev. Charles Van Aus Dall, despite the commotion and grief around him, stood waiting for Storti in front of First Congregational Church, fixed to his task of receiving this man, honoring his life and easing his passage out of it. Nothing could distract him from that.