What could have been

Published 8:07 pm Wednesday, June 11, 2014

As more details emerge about the barricade situation on Walter Reid Drive on Monday, one thing becomes clear: State and local police found themselves in a volatile environment when 52-year-old Gary Abernathy locked himself in his house and refused to submit to arrest on charges of arson and obtaining money by false pretenses.

On Tuesday, Suffolk News-Herald staff writer Matthew Ward visited the community around Elephant’s Fork Elementary School, which had been locked down tight when Abernathy barricaded himself in his house across the way early Monday morning.

Judging from the accounts of neighbors who encountered him that morning after he’d run from police and before he’d returned home and locked himself away, Abernathy was a man acting in desperation and, perhaps at least temporarily, without full access to all his faculties.

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What was clear to Carl New, who lives nearby with his wife and who was startled to have Abernathy barge into his home and demand keys to his van, was that Abernathy was in a dangerous state of mind.

The same thing was clear to police officers, who quickly reacted to the situation by ordering the nearby elementary school to be locked up tight. Students and teachers in mobile classrooms outside the building were quickly brought inside, and the building was closed. Faculty, staff and students were moved into the school’s gymnasium, where the adults could keep a close eye on their charges.

In fact, the adults took things so seriously that when it became clear Abernathy was unlikely to surrender himself quickly, they began to organize an evacuation. But there is only one way in and out of Elephant’s Fork for vehicles, and that would take them past the house where Abernathy could potentially endanger them.

So administrators found a creative solution: They’d take the kids out the back of the school, create a path for them through a small strip of woods to a Route 58 exit ramp and load them onto waiting buses, all under the guard of heavily armed and armored police officers, as well as unarmed and potentially vulnerable school faculty and staff, public works employees and others who had been brought in to help.

The children were evacuated without a hitch to King’s Fork High School, where some were reunited with worried parents and others finished the day with the big kids. It did not go so well for Abernathy, who police say took his own life late Monday afternoon.

Surely the loss of even that life is a circumstance that will be mourned by those who loved him. But the fact that Suffolk was spared grisly and horrific headlines declaring the deaths of innocent children is an outcome worthy of remark, and the clear-headed actions of police officers, school administrators, teachers and even neighbors helped ensure that outcome.

Suffolk has many reasons to be proud in the wake of this sad incident, and Elephant’s Fork parents can be forgiven for taking a few minutes to hold their children extra close when they consider just what could have been.