AMSTERDAM, N.Y. — It was 6:28 p.m. when the phone rang that Saturday, shattering the nervous quiet that had cloaked Tom and Linda King’s home in upstate New York after word of a terrible crash hit Facebook.
The woman on the line was frantic. There had been a limousine accident, she said, before passing the phone to a state police trooper.
The trooper told Tom King that the limo carrying his four youngest daughters had crashed near an intersection in rural Schoharie.
“’Are there any survivors?’” Tom King recalled asking.
“And he said, ‘No, they were all killed.’”
Four of the Kings’ seven children — Amy, Allison, Abigail and Mary — were among the dead. Three of their sons-in-law were also killed in the Oct. 6 crash that claimed a total of 20 lives.
From there, the facts settled in more slowly: They were now grandparents to three orphans, a 16-month-old, a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old.
The full impact of the devastation from the country’s deadliest transportation accident in nearly a decade continues to unfold in grim detail. But for the Kings — a tight-knit clan, many of whom lived close enough for daily impromptu visits — the shock is incalculable.
“It’s going to be down the road, three or four months from now, when it really hits us,” said Tom King, 72, as he sat in an armchair in his living room, six days after the call that changed his life.
A steady flow of neighbors bearing pastries and hugs continues to cycle through the three-bedroom home that has been the family’s anchor and hub in Amsterdam for 24 years. Strangers have sent well-wishes.
“I saw a Nebraska address on a bouquet of flowers that arrived,” Linda King, 70, said. “We don’t know anyone in Nebraska.”
For now, a long to-do list has crowded out mourning.
There were the cars they had to move from where they had been parked near the home of their newlywed daughter, just before she and her husband and 15 relatives and friends piled into the limousine en route to her birthday party at a brewery in Cooperstown.
There were the wakes and the funerals to plan and to pay for and to attend. There were recently purchased homes to take care of. One of their daughters had a will. The others did not.
There are the longer-term arrangements to make for the three grandchildren, Tom King explained as one of them, 2-year-old Isaac, slept on his lap.
“We love our grandchildren,” he said, “but realize we physically can’t care for them full-time.”
The parents who lost 4 daughters and 3 sons-in-law in the horrific limo crash are besieged by the worst kind of to-do list: caring for orphaned grandchildren, planning wakes and funerals, taking care of the couples' homes. https://t.co/ID2PhKS7fI
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 17, 2018
‘We weren’t immediately concerned’
It was a typical Saturday.
Tom King was cooking and Linda King was tidying the house when she received a news alert about the limousine accident at around 2 p.m.
“But they said the limo was carrying a wedding party, so we weren’t immediately concerned,” Linda King said.
They sent texts to all four daughters. None were returned. That’s when the worrying began.
“Normally, the girls were always sending pictures and things,” Linda King said.
The phone rang right after sunset. It was one of their daughters’ sisters-in-law who had skipped the celebration because she was not feeling well.
“We had been hopeful up until that point,’’ Tom King said. “It was unimaginable, really.”
It was especially inconceivable because all four of the daughters had stopped by their parents’ house in the hours before the crash.
The night before, Allison King, 31, had dropped off a dozen fresh eggs from the chickens she raised. Abigail Jackson, 34, visited briefly Saturday after coaching her daughter’s soccer match. Mary Dyson, 33, drove by later in her pickup truck to drop off Isaac. Finally, Amy Steenburg, 29, showed up in a rush, said a quick hello and left with Dyson and her husband.
“They were in a hurry,” Tom King said.
And they were excited, on their way to celebrate Steenburg’s 30th birthday with a tour and beer tasting at Ommegang, a popular brewery.
Except they never made it.
They were inseparable but very different
In sharing memories of their daughters, the Kings recalled young lives cut short just as they were marking major life events like recent births and upcoming weddings.
They were inseparable (bridesmaids at each others weddings) and similar in looks (all blue-eyed and blonde), but unique in personalities.
Steenburg, who had married her husband, Axel, just four months ago, was remembered as an avid traveler, always on the go. The couple, who had just moved into a new house, had flown to Hawaii last year, traveled to Ireland for their honeymoon and had a Caribbean cruise scheduled for early next year. Still, Steenburg, who would have turned 30 four days after the crash, would always find her way home.
“She was famous for a text that would come at about 5 o’clock,” Linda King said. “It would say, ‘What’s for dinner?’ ”
Jackson dedicated her life to children. She was a teacher with a master’s degree in education and taught remedial reading at the Lynch Literacy Academy in Amsterdam. She and her husband, Adam, had two young daughters, Archer Mattingly Jackson, 4, and Elle Berra Jackson, 16-months.
“Do you think they were Yankee fans, or what?” said Tom King, referring to the girls’ middle names honoring two famous Yankees, Don Mattingly and Yogi Berra. The children will live with Adam Jackson’s mother.
Dyson was a builder. An Army veteran and a civil engineer, she was stationed in Iraq for a year and helped with the rebuilding. “She was involved in building the first girls school in Iraq,” Linda King said.
Dyson was also an owner of a construction company in Watertown, where she lived with her husband, Robert, 34, and their son, Isaac. This weekend the Kings are driving the boy to Seneca Falls, where he will live with Robert Dyson’s mother.
“Allie was my flower child,” said Linda King, using Allison’s nickname. Allison and her fiancé were passionate organic gardeners. They raised chickens, ducks and rabbits in their backyard garden in Galway, and just two weeks ago they had attended an annual garlic festival in upstate New York with her parents.
“We ate garlic soup, garlic ice cream, garlic everything,” Linda King said.
The four sisters were inside a white stretch limousine when it careened down a steep hill, clipped a parked car and hit and killed two pedestrians before slamming into a shallow creek bed, killing the driver and all 17 passengers. The vehicle had a record of repeated safety violations and the operator of the limousine company, Nauman Hussain, has pleaded not guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide.
Linda King has kept newspaper articles about the accident. She is saving them for her grandchildren.
“I think they will want to read these stories when they get older,” Linda King said.
She has also found comfort in a detail, heard secondhand.
“The coroner told the sheriff that the kids didn’t suffer,” Linda King said. “It was immediate.”
A town becomes a home, and a final resting place
The Kings moved to Amsterdam about 24 years ago after the Air Force base where Tom King worked in Plattsburgh, a small city near the Canadian border, closed. Tom King found a job as a meat manager at the commissary of a Navy facility, while Linda King worked for a state agency.
They settled in a ranch-style house with the four daughters and a son, Tom. Their two other adult children, Jennifer and Christopher, stayed behind in Chazy Lake. The Kings’ house sits across the street from the local high school that Tom and the four sisters attended, in easy reach of the next prank they would play on their parents.
“One morning I went out to my truck to go to work and there were about a hundred bars of oleo surrounding my vehicle,” Tom King said.
Amsterdam, a city of about 20,000, 30 miles northwest of Albany, will also be their daughters’ final resting place.
On Saturday, the Kings watched in awe as hundreds of mourners crowded a red brick church for the combined funeral for the four sisters, three husbands and Axel Steenburg’s brother, Rich. The urns of the married couples were surrounded by their photographs and five teddy bears, one for each child they left behind, including Rich Steenburg’s two children.
The Kings have remained remarkably stoic, but the funeral did test that steely resolve.
“I saw three or four grown men, just sobbing uncontrollably. I try to hold myself together,” Tom King said with a reflective pause. “But it’s not like I haven’t had my moments.”\
The priest during the funeral spoke of Job’s biblical trials. “And I did feel like Job, who God had deserted,” he said.
The Kings are planning to have a mausoleum built in the local cemetery to house the urns together.
The void left by their daughters’ deaths has yet to fully hit home, their father said.
“You know, your kids go off to college and other places. Sometimes you don’t see them for several months,” Tom King said.
“Eventually we’ll realize they aren’t coming home.”