The Boston Globe

‘She was sunshine and light and warmth’: Friends recall Brandeis student killed in bus crash

“She is one of the absolute few people I think was truly just good,” Sam Forman said.

Flowers at the scene of a Brandeis University shuttle bus crash on South Street in Waltham. ADAM FLEISHAKER


To Sam Forman, there are few people who represent “pure goodness,” who can fill a friend’s day with light and positivity even in the midst of their own struggles.

Vanessa Mark, a student at Brandeis University who was killed in a shuttle bus crash on Saturday, was one of them, he recalled Monday.

“She was sunshine and light and warmth, and just goodness,” said Forman, 23, a college friend of Mark’s. “She is one of the absolute few people I think was truly just good.”

Forman was at work when he got a call from a friend saying that Mark, 25, had died after a shuttle bus on a return trip struck a tree in Waltham.

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“It was just such a shocking experience to hear her name,” Forman said.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Waltham police Chief Kevin O’Connell said Monday evening that there were 30 passengers on the bus, which was operated by a driver working for Joseph’s Transportation. All aboard were injured in the crash, which remains under investigation, and at least one survivor has potentially life-threatening injuries, Ryan and O’Connell said in a statement.

The shuttle was traveling along a routine route from the Boston and Cambridge area back to Brandeis at the time of the accident, and not all students had attended a hockey game at Northeastern University as had been previously reported, the statement said. The majority of the students were from Brandeis, but there were also students from other schools.

Amid the frenetic start of freshman year, Forman and Mark crossed paths while auditioning for an improvisation group on campus. Within minutes of meeting her, Forman could tell Mark was “funny and friendly.”

“It was just sort of indicative of her character, just how magnetic and bright she was in every sense,” Forman said.

With her rectangular glasses, beaming smile, and natural disposition for comedy, Mark would go on to join False Advertising, the oldest improv troupe at Brandeis. Forman didn’t make the cut and joined an a capella group on campus instead.

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But that meeting led to an enduring friendship. Whenever he felt down or needed a laugh, Mark was the person he went to first.

“You couldn’t really go many moments with her without cracking a smile and laughing,” Forman said.

Rachel Freed Sussman, 23, bonded with Mark before classes even began. Their parents happened to drop them off for pre-orientation at the same time and the two students shared a knowing smile.

“And that was it. We were just friends since then. We just kind of like looked at each other and we knew,” said Freed Sussman, who lives in Boston. The two would go on to become roommates.

While Mark was light and bubbly, she was also driven to succeed, she said.

“She was just this incredibly patient, incredibly persistent person who always wanted to do the right thing,” Freed Sussman said. “She never gave up on anything.”

Mark was on leave from Brandeis but was living in Waltham and “was an active and cherished member of the Brandeis community,” said Brandeis president Ron Liebowitz in a statement to students Sunday.

“I know that sadness over last night’s fatal shuttle accident is rippling through our community today,” Liebowitz said. “We are all experiencing the shock of such a terrible accident, and everyone’s recovery will take time.”

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The Brandeis Center for Spiritual Life scheduled a vigil for 7 p.m. Monday at the Harlan Chapel, to provide an “open space of reflection in light of the tragic accident,” according to an Instagram post.

Adam Fleishaker, 23, a close friend of Mark’s throughout college, said “we’re all just devastated” by her death.

Fleishaker was in the same a capella group as Forman, and recalled his friendship with Mark blossoming in rehearsal rooms, where the two drummed their fingers on the piano and practiced their parts together.

Mark had a gravitational pull so strong that others would come into her orbit just by entering the room, he said. She would immediately make them feel special and welcome.

“I want to show the joy and love that she gave to everyone else, so that I can, even as a sliver, give back to who she was,” Fleishaker said.

Mark’s empathy manifested itself in other ways, like her artwork. Whether it was drawing pictures of her friends staged in different poses or crafting miniature figurines for them, her artistic ability was striking, Fleishaker said.

And on stage, Mark was a star, friends said. She was soft-spoken, but when it was her moment to shine, Fleishaker said, she captivated the audience, and her fellow troupe members would build off her performance to keep the show’s momentum going.

“Her personality would just provide such fodder,” he said. “It was great.”

Since the crash, Fleishaker has recalled the times he shared with Mark and been struck by the enormity of her loss. More than anything, he has been amazed to hear about the number of lives she touched.

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“What [people] should see is the art and life that flowed from her, and the joy that she brought to everyone,” he said. “That’s what I want when you search ‘Vanessa Mark’ on Google.”

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