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Lambda Chi Alpha tries to move on after plane crash took 3 brothers

One month after tragic accident, new Lambda Chi Alpha President, brother sit down with The Maine Campus to talk about what happened and what's next

On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 16, the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity went on a group excursion to tour the Bangor Air Force Base, where fraternity alumnus William “B.J.” Hannigan worked. After touring the base with Hannigan, who had developed a passion for flying after a couple years working at the base, the majority of the fraternity parted ways. Hannigan and fellow members David Cheney and Marcelo Rugini headed out for a joyride with the newly licensed Hannigan.

“B.J. showed us around,” said Brad Manning, a third-year construction management and technology student and member of Lambda Chi, recalling the morning, now one month later inside the fraternity house. “He showed us inside the plane, which was in the cargo hold. He showed us a ton of stuff; we got a big group picture. […] They left from the parking lot to go to the plane.”

The members of Lambda Chi Alpha never saw Hannigan, Rugini or president Cheney, again.

A little before 5 p.m., after spending the majority of the day on a joyride over Maine, the three young men were ready to head back to Bangor from Knox County Regional Airport.

Right after taking off, their plane struck a pickup truck that was crossing the runway. The plane climbed a couple of hundred feet in the air before crashing about 300 yards off the runway, killing both passengers and the pilot.

 

‘We were the first people to know’

 

That night, Lambda Chi Alpha had a scheduled Brotherhood gathering, a mandatory, closed-off hangout session with the fraternity.

In the late afternoon, when reports began seeping out about a plane crash, fraternity member Lucas Bernardi heard about a crash on the radio. He contacted Thomas “T.J.” Doherty, who was vice president of the fraternity at the time, who told Manning.

“[After we heard about the crash] we waited because we had a Brotherhood event that night and just figured, ‘Oh, they’ll come back, they’ll come back,’” Manning said. “But when the Brotherhood event started, we said ‘OK, they would have been here.’”

As time went on throughout the night, more brothers began showing up at the house as the worrying increased.

“Throughout the entire night, when we weren’t sure, we were just staying positive,” Manning said. “First we called that airport, then [Lambda Chi Alpha Ritualist] Tom Green called the state police, and we just stayed in contact, seeing if there were any updates, and we pretty much got confirmation from that point.

“Around midnight, we were sure,” Manning added. “We made sure all the brothers stayed here. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t let anyone else know. We were the first people to know.”

 

‘He loved this place’

 

Both Manning and Doherty joined the fraternity in their first year of school, Doherty slightly earlier than Manning. Early on, each had significant chances to mingle with the slightly older members of the fraternity — something that apparently isn’t the case in all fraternities.

“The guys here were all different,” Doherty said. “There’s something for everybody, they were open and diverse. There’s not much of a generation gap here, as far as age goes. It seems in other places, the older guys don’t associate with the younger guys that much.”

In Greek Life, every incoming member is matched with a “big brother” or “big sister,” which helps the new affiliate get accustomed to the environment.

“You just hang out, watch the game or something,” Manning said of the big brother relationship. “They find out what you do, who you are, what type of person you are. They see if you’re a good fit for the fraternity.”

Manning’s big brother was Bernardi — perhaps Rugini’s closest friend in the fraternity.

“We ended up getting really close,” Manning said of his relationship with Bernardi and Rugini. “Marcelo and Lucas were ridiculous.”

Hannigan was Doherty’s big brother. Doherty saw firsthand the delight that planes brought Hannigan, noting that Hannigan was excited to finally get his pilot’s license last semester.

“It was a passion of his. He wanted it for a while because he worked for the Air Force Base in Bangor, but hadn’t gotten to it [until recently],” Doherty said. “It started out as a means to pay for school.”

“[B.J.] began to love it,” Manning added. “That’s what he wanted to do with his life was fly planes.”

During their first year in the fraternity, Cheney was the fraternity educator, which teaches “members on our core values and our founders,” Doherty said. “It’s fraternity history.”

In the start of their first year in Lambda Chi Alpha, the fraternity didn’t have a house. Its body was disconnected from the foundation, and it was condemned. After finally raising the money to fix the house, the brothers were able to move in. Work was needed continuously — but that didn’t slow down Cheney, who soon took the post as fraternity president.

“Cheney set a new bar,” Doherty said. “He was always doing something, whether it was school work or fraternity work, when you walked by his room — his door was always open — he was sitting at his table, responding to emails, doing reports to send to nationals or doing his studies. He didn’t even have a TV in his room.”

Cheney was pleased that the fraternity finally had a home of its own, but wanted to continue improving the fraternity.

“I remember that Cheney and I would talk all the time about how this place was on the up-and-up and we needed to keep pushing,” Manning said. “And just remembering that this is what he would have wanted, for us to move on and push forward and keep improving this place — because he loved this place.”

One of Cheney’s biggest objectives, according to Doherty and Manning, was to have the Lambda Chi Alpha Northeast Conclave hosted at UMaine.

The Northeast Conclave consists of nine Lambda Chi Alpha chapters and is a multiday leadership seminar where the host-school is selected after an application process.

“Our national adviser who comes up every semester recommended that we look into hosting because it hasn’t been hosted in Maine ever,” Doherty said. “We applied in early November. [Cheney] had a huge role in it.”

It was fitting that a couple of weeks later, just days before the accident would claim his life, Cheney and the rest of the fraternity found out that the Conclave would be hosted in Maine for the first time in 2013.

 

“We found out we were hosting it a couple [of] weeks later, before Thanksgiving,” Doherty said. “It’s kind of an honor to host it. [Cheney] was very proud.”

 

‘We can’t just give up on it’

 

In addition to trying to arrange a three-day, multifaceted event like the Conclave, 2013 happens to be Lambda Chi Alpha’s 100-year anniversary, which will feature a catered celebration on campus with a number of alumni expected to appear.

With two events needing so much preparation and focus, it could be hard enough to pull off with a stable fraternity — let alone one that tragically lost three members, including its president. It would have been understandable — to say the least — if the conclave had been moved to a different location, to save the brothers the hardship of organization after weeks, even months, of heartbreak.

But the brothers were having none of it.

“It might have crossed guys’ minds,” Doherty said. “But we knew it was one of those things that we had to do. There wasn’t an option. We can’t just give up on it.”

Instead, the brothers of Lambda Chi Alpha are using their two huge events this semester as opportunities to showcase to the community, their alumni and their fellow chapters that they will continue on, in memory of their fallen brothers.

“Hopefully, during our centennial, there’ll be a reveal of — I’m not exactly sure what we’ve decided — but we’re going to reveal something that day,” Doherty said. “There’s been talk about dedicating a new front porch, or a new monument, or something on this property [to our brothers]. There’s also a capstone project that has been proposed to us about doing a memorial garden to the side of our house.”

For the time being, Lambda Chi Alpha erected a makeshift memorial in the chapter room at the entrance of their house, featuring photos of Cheney, Hannigan and Rugini, along with personal tokens, letters of condolences and other important remembrances of their fallen brothers.

Despite this tragedy, the fraternity is looking toward the future and recently held elections for positions for next school year. Doherty was named president, replacing Cheney’s post.

“My big thing is, I want to continue to hold all the officers at the same standards [as Cheney],” Doherty said. “I want to keep pushing them and start new things. There’s always room to expand.”

Even in the wake of dramatic loss, Lambda Chi Alpha is already trying to find ways to grow.