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Newcastle classmates of crash victim create lasting memorial

Services to remember Vivian Connor and Morgan Helman scheduled
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Newcastle Elementary Charter School classmates of Auburn Folsom Road crash victim Vivian Connor have channeled their grief into building a lasting memorial.

Soon after the eighth grade students learned at school Monday that Connor was one of two girls killed Sunday in a single-vehicle crash near Auburn, they started to work in earnest on completing a project to add a brick planter and seating areas in a shaded patio.

On Friday, students, teachers and staff will be joining members of the public who knew Connor to dedicate “Vivian’s Garden.” The dedication is scheduled for 3 p.m. on the eighth-grade patio at the 8951 Valley View Drive school.

Principal Kathleen Daugherty said Thursday that the work to ensure the garden and patio improvements were ready for Friday gave the 55 children in the school’s eighth grade a focus in the emotional hours and days after Connor’s death.

For educators, it was an opportunity to help students not used to dealing with issues like death.

“We don’t want to send the message that life stops (when there is a death), but also that we’ll always keep her in our hearts,” Daughtery said.

Vivian Chloe Connor, 13, had been a student at the school since kindergarten. Noah Krznarich, 13, the student class president, said he got to know Connor better when they shared the same row of seats on a student trip back from Washington, D.C.

“It was really, really depressing (on Monday),” Krznarich said. “It was a shock and everyone was sad. We had to get to the point where we realized she had died.”

From there, the class rolled up its sleeves and got to work on a patio. Concrete had recently been poured and bricks purchased. Plans were in place and the work commenced.

As the realization became more focused that the patio improvements could be completed this week, the student council and the school’s parent-teacher club pitched in with funds for a commemorative plaque and two camellia bushes.

Daugherty said the camellias will bloom in pink at this time of year. Pink was Connor’s favorite color, she said.

Around the school, which has 400 students, were several signs of the loss. The Newcastle school sign was decorated with floral bouquets. There were photo tributes. And on the wall of the eight-grade classroom, a large sign had been placed stating “Stay Strong Newcastle Knights.”

“We will be moving forward with a sense of pride for what has been accomplished for a friend,” Daugherty said.

While the California Highway Patrol’s final investigative report has not been released, the Newcastle office issued a statement after the crash stating that speed was a factor in the crash. Connor and the other girl who lost her life – 17-year-old Del Oro High School student Morgan Helman of Carmichael – were not wearing seatbelts.

The Highway Patrol also stated that the 17-year-old driver, who is not being identified because of his age, had a provisional license, which did not allow him to be driving teen passengers at that time.  

The crash occurred at about 7:35 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday.  Madison Bennetts, a passenger in the crash vehicle, said the sudden appearance of a deer caused the driver to change direction. The sport-utility vehicle left the road, near Lees Lane south of Auburn, and struck a guard rail, the Highway Patrol reported.

The vehicle ended up on its side in a pasture. Both girls were pronounced dead at the scene. The other four occupants wore seatbelts and sustained minor to moderate injuries, the Highway Patrol said. The group was returning from an Auburn store, where they had bought snacks for a Super Bowl gathering. Alcohol was not a factor, Highway Patrol Officer David Martinez said.

A memorial service for Connor is slated for 1 p.m. Saturday at Auburn Presbyterian Church, 13205 Bel Air Drive, Auburn. Helman will be remembered at a 2:30 p.m. service on Monday at Granite Bay’s Bayside Church.