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Memory of crash victims lives through survivors, Camp Anchor

The heat is so intense it feels as if the sky is going to start melting from above, and below the heat rises off the parking lot asphalt in shimmery ribbons. But a hundred yards away, down on the beach, the ocean breakers are rolling in, and the kids are wading and laughing, and what could be better for a summer camper than to have your own stretch of Long Island Sound?

Then again, with more than 600 campers each day, it's not as if you can herd the whole group down to the water together. Some of them get to swim in one of the three pools. Others are in the dance tent. The music tent. So many tents. The slip 'n slide.

The campers are everywhere, aged 6 to 40, all shapes and sizes, most of them smiling. Who wouldn't? I've stumbled onto some sort of Shangri-La, on the blue-water coast of Nassau County: Camp Anchor, the Town of Hempstead's jewel. As I stroll the grounds with 40-year camp director Joe Lentini, as we sift through groups of campers going from one activity to the next, campers high-five him. One shouts out, "I love you, Man!" -- not ironically.

When one of the campers high-fives me, I find myself wondering what I looked like to the camper. Probably very unusual. Probably very ... special.

The kid himself had Down's Syndrome. The kids and adults around him are physically challenged in various ways, or were born with spina bifida, or autism, or some condition that classifies them to the outside world as special, but is, to them, the norm. At Camp Anchor, a guy like me is completely out of place. It's a singular institution that enriches its volunteers and staff as much as it enriches the 1,000 special-needs children and adults it services through the year. There's not only a mile-long waiting list for the special-needs campers, there's a waiting list to be a volunteer. And once you make it to volunteer level, you have to be the best of the best to be hired on as staff.

The five kids from Floral Park were all on staff. Jamie Malone, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Richmond set to start her career as a teacher in the fall; her younger sister Paige, 19, a student at Richmond; Michael Mulhall, 22, a recent graduate of the University of Scranton; Michael's younger sister Justine, and her best friend Kelly Murphy.

Justine was at the wheel that morning, one year ago, at 8:45, going south on the on the Meadowbrook Parkway to camp, a commute they'd all done a hundred times, when a driver suddenly veered into Justine's lane. She yanked the wheel of the Honda to the left to avoid a collision, then turned back to the right, to return to her lane, but the car kept turning, and curled off the parkway and into a tree. Jamie and Paige Malone and Michael Mulhall were dead.

Justine and Kelly were not seriously injured.

*****

On Saturday afternoon St. John's University's Carnesseca Arena there will be a benefit basketball game in their honor. It promises to be the hoops exhibition game of the summer. The teams playing will comprise athletes from the NBA, to its D-League, from European leagues to Division I, all of them gathering not to show their stuff, but to raise money for the camp and the Malone scholarship fund -- and not incidentally, to honor a father named Jim Malone, a lifetime basketball man who also happens to coach high school basketball for all the right reasons.

Babylon's Danny Green was the Nassau County player of the year before he went on to star at UNC. He's a San Antonio Spur now. He'll be joined by, among others, Brooklyn's Jamine Peterson, a Providence standout coming in after his first year in the D League; Queens' Tyrone Nash, who just graduated from Notre Dame; St. John's Paris Horne, he of the flailing dunks; and Jeff Xavier, coming off a season in Spain. Vernon Goodridge and Antoine Pereson were D-Leaguers last season, Dan Geriot and Kevin Hovne will represent the Richmond Spiders.

For one summer afternoon, with the NBA closed down, the true city game will once again rule the sporting landscape -- which, as any New Yorker knows, is the way it should always be.

It was Joe Lynch's idea. Lynch, heading into his senior year at St. John's, was Paige Malone's boyfriend, and when she died they were in love in that singularly ideal and idealistic way that only 19-year-olds can be in love. And when that kind of love is snuffed out at its apex it becomes the kind of thing that drives a kid to find some way to equal its strength of emotion, in the absence of the girl herself -- the girl with whom you shared the first kiss, and then, it turned out, the last kiss, on the exact same street corner.

But Lynch was wise enough to know that his suffering was nothing next to Jim Malone's. For a father to lose two daughters? At once? Neither yet married? Neither yet mothers? On their way to the camp that defined both of their lives? Inconceivable. So Lynch organized the game because he figured that if he reached out to the local stars, then maybe the father would be able, for one afternoon, to coach some real talent.

Lynch rented the arena. Word came back that Jim Malone would not be allowed to coach one of the all-star teams. The NCAA forbids a high school coach coaching in a Division I arena.

Lynch was disappointed, but not bowed. This was all the more reason to do it right. Jim Malone deserved it.

*****

As has long been obvious to young Joe Lynch and everyone else in Floral Park, N.Y. -- a tidy, pleasant suburb where the half-hourly hum of the train pulling out of the station dutifully announces the commute into and out of the city and every village resident knows that this good American life is not only better than it was for their ancestors but will be even better for their industrious kids, and their kids' kids -- Jamie and Paige's dad was an unusual man, in that he was a very unusual basketball coach.

A graduate of storied Holy Cross High in Queens and then Stonybrook back in the '80s, Malone was learning the coaching trade as an assistant under Bobby Valvano at Division I St. Francis -- until he quickly tired of the recruiting sleaze and decided that the coaching he really wanted to do had to be about the game and the kids and nothing else.

So he took the head coaching job at Beach Channel High, way down in Rockaway and closer to home, took a college-counselor and golf coach position at Garden City High, next door to Floral Park, even though Garden City kids had their own pros at the three local clubs. There was no golf at Beach Channel. Beach was a dream born in 1983: a new city high school rising from a poor-to-middle class neighborhood planted on the thin slice of land flanked by Jamaica Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, an off-the-radar city neighborhood that owed its history to fishing, to nature.

The school would revolutionarily offer marine studies, give the kids of local fishermen a chance to better the ecosystem of their environment, and in learning to change their distinct slice of New York, change their own destinies.

His first year, 15 kids showed up in the gym. But within four years Jim Malone had somehow brought Beach an unlikely basketball championship. Not only were his kids just local kids, he had little support in his quixotic quest. No faculty volunteered to man the time clock, or provide security, or do anything; no faculty ever showed up for a single game. No parents ever attended a game.

On the other hand, the Beach gig gave to Jim Malone the idealist, the educator, a weird freedom to run a New York City high school basketball program exactly the way he wanted to run it: pure, free of hollow promises and power-grabbing coaching stunts that exploited the kids.

It was assumed that Jim was going to take the head job at Holy Cross a dozen years ago -- step up in class, get out of Rockaway, where the dream down at Beach was going south as more and more other districts dumped their underachievers onto its huge campus.

He didn't take it. Not just because Holy Cross would have meant returning to the world where the parents scream at the coach, or as happened to Ron Naclerio over at Cardoza, come out of the stands and actually punch the coach. No, the Beach Channel gig had become more than basketball. It was a calling. It was public service, without feeling he was making a sacrifice.

It was like the job his two precious daughters had embraced for the last few years: doing good, off the radar, for all the right reasons. Not because it looks good on the resume. Because, at the end of the day, he loves the kids, even if their parents never show up to see a game.

And down in Rockaway, where the sea air comes at you from both sides, you can't even get the remotest whiff of the men he calls the mutts.

The mutts?

"Yeah, mutts. There are many mutts out there," he says, with a laugh that isn't a laugh. We're sitting on his porch. The anniversary of the crash is three days away. He is doing his absolute best not to lose it.

"The mutts -- the glad-handing of the basketball dirt bags of the universe," he says. "There are many mutts in the landscape of New York basketball. Oy, yey, yey ... I've seen such a change in the last 20 years of the whole landscape of New York basketball: The emergence of the summer programs and the summer teams and the money they take in and the perks they can give the kids. And the sneakers and the suits and the jockeying. Flying some kid in from Wisconsin for a summer league in a dinky gym in Queens? What the hell is that about?"

He knows the answer: it's about small men pretending to have big power. Malone doesn't have to pretend, because he doesn't want any power. He just wants to do what he can. If he can get a kid into Monroe Community College in upstate Rochester, whose academics he admires, that's a victory.

If he can lighten a kid's day, that's good, too. Tomorrow he's going to visit a former Beach player upstate in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility. At his trial, the kid pleaded to murder. Maybe he did it. Maybe he didn't. But here's the thing that Malone still can't understand: it took five years for the case to come to trial. Five years for a kid to wait for his day in court ... all of those years sent in prison.

What kind if system is that? Why can't any of the damned systems work for the kids? Malone would sooner leave Beach to find fame and fortune than Paige or Jamie would have stopped going to Anchor to take a job at a fancy New England summer camp. He's had it with the system.

"Kids in junior college in Kansas? It kills me, that old network of having to have control. "We're going to send you to Tyler, Texas? We're going to send you to Hutchinson, Kansas?"

Frankly, it makes him sick. And he's not afraid to say so, now that he has nothing to lose.

Now that whatever happens doesn't matter anymore.

*****

"I didn't realize it was going to be so difficult," he says. How were he and his wife to know what the grief counselor later told them -- that they never should have gone to any of the memorials? Who knows such a thing in advance? That memorial services just keep the wounds open and raw?

"This week ..." he says. "I didn't realize ... it's only a day, it's only a date. What difference should it make if it's six months? A year?"

Anchor was planning a memorial for next week. Malone won't go. They mean well, of course, they all do. He understands this. But this week, as everyone wants to honor by remembering, with the game a few weeks off, all it does is make it harder for him to forget. He never imagined that the empty spaces would linger, over there on the periphery, for so long.

The mailman walks up to the porch and delivers a bulging stack of mail. Malone glances at the pile, sees several handwritten envelopes. "The cards start now," he says. He casts the whole thing aside.

There's been one good thing, though. The police report has finally been issued. Of course, Malone has no idea why it took a year, but at least it finally absolved Justine Mulhall of all blame, a finding for which Jim is particularly grateful: "There's no one purer than Justine."

I try and point out that though his daughters' lives were short, they were pure.

"I'm not ready to take on any of those kind world views yet," he says. "There's a lot of anger there that you just sit on .... because there's nobody to be angry at."

I want to say something else, anything to make it easier on him, but now know better; everything I say to try comes out wrong.

So I let him talk, if he wants to talk. Every 30 seconds or so he does, gazing off into the verdant neighborhood, but not seeing

"They were very, very wonderful kids. Good, good girls."

Then, not hearing the soothing hum of the train, or the birdsong all around us: "It's ... tough."

*****

The thing that strikes Neil Mulhall now is how he and his wife thought that they knew their only son, but in a way, they didn't. When they met some 1,200 people who knew Mike in the days following the accident, leading up to the funeral, they realized that the wake he left was broad and wide.

"It was an amazing journey to get to know our son in death, unfortunately, better than we thought we knew him in life," says the father of the lost son, as well as the father of the daughter spared.

"At home he was this man-child who, we thought, didn't want to grow up. But to the rest of the world he was a leader, and a friend, and a partner, and a pal, and a teacher. It was quite an amazing learning experience. Not that I wanted to find out so much under these circumstances. But I'm glad I did.

"What made Michael different from other people was that he just liked everybody. He didn't judge people, like most of us do. And it didn't matter where you came from or what you were good at or not good at. He was open-minded and willing to let anyone enter his world."

Including the children at Anchor. Especially the children at Anchor. He'd been a history major at Scranton, but Neil Mulhall thinks that Michael's vocation would have connected to Anchor, in one way or another. "It was his calling," he said. "I'd see how comfortable he was down there. With everyone. With five year old kids. It's an amazing place. Think about it: half of the staff are volunteers. They get up every morning, ride school buses down, spend the day in the hot sun, then, at the end of the day, get back on the school buses to go home, day in, day out.

"It shows you that there's hope for all of us."

I ask about his daughter. The driver. He pauses for a few seconds. Then he says, "Justine's bravery over the last 12 months is inspiring to not just those of us who get the privilege of living with her, but anyone who knows her, and I would extend that to her friend Kelly. The two of them are real role models now, for all of us. On how to live our lives and pick ourselves up after a huge setback."

He and his wife have twin 18-year-old daughters, Grace and Carey. They work at the camp.

I ask Neil Mulhall how he and his wife are doing. "We're OK," he says, as if almost surprised to hear himself saying it.

*****

I follow a group of Anchor campers -- the group Paige Malone would have been working with -- past the dance tent, toward their next activity: the slip 'n slide. The campers like sliding, but they like it even better when one of the counselors sprays each of them in the face with his hose.

A young man named Kevin Richman, a group leader, wanders over. He used to spend his summers teaching school, for actual pay. But he gave it up to return to Anchor. He tells me that the most underappreciated thing about Anchor is how the family connects year-round. How when the campers meet other special kids like themselves, all from the Town of Hempstead, it gives them a year-round social network.

I ask Kevin how Justine is doing.

"Justine?" he says. "Justine's found peace here."

Joe Lentini wants me to see the memorial that greets all visitors to the camp, a stone from a nearby quarry with an anchor embedded in it, and the names of Paige, Jamie and Michael.

Then he nods to a large tent in the distance. Within a few years, if they can raise the six million dollars, it will be The Malone-Mulhall Recreation Center at Camp Anchor.

And now we turn to see two young women awaiting us, a few feet away, smiling tanned. They both started as volunteers in 2004, and were both given staff positions in 2007. I approach, notebook open, to ask them, what it's like to be on staff at Anchor, to work at something that does so much good.

"It's not work," says Justine Mulhall. "It's going to camp."

"It's not what we do," says Kelly Murphy. "It's what we love."

It must be amazing, I say, to come in from your own everyday world to this one.

"This is our real world," says Kelly Murphy, and her friend smiles in agreement.

I thank them for their time, and they turn to hurry back to their group, where they're needed. Well, where they belong.

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