Photos by Geoff George and Raul Benefacious
On hearing the devastating news of a University of Minnesota student who died after a fall from inside the abandoned Bunge Tower grain elevator, we recalled the last time a student died in that same elevator. In 2006, reporter and U of M journalism professor Gayle Golden investigated the causes leading to that fatal accident for our magazine. Her story is reprinted here.
S ince it was shut down three years ago, the Bunge grain elevator has towered over southeast Minneapolis' Como neighborhood with an almost gothic foreboding—a destination for taggers, vandals, urban adventurers, and young partiers who would explore the blighted relic of the agricultural industry, sending empty bottles of Rolling Rock crashing from its heights. It was a place eyed with annoyance and apprehension by many who live in the neighborhood's modest homes and apartments.
Germain Vigeant (pronounced vy-jent) had always looked at the massive towers with curiosity. The twenty-year-old University of Minnesota student, who lived in a rented house three blocks away, loved the wild graffiti, the forbidden allure of broken windows and rusted pipes, and the prospect of telling stories after scaling the metal staircases to the top. As she stood near the towers at 3 a.m. on an unseasonably warm night last January, she looked once more at the white silos and wondered. She was flush from a night of partying with friends. She was standing next to a boy she liked—a boy who liked her. The boy knew the towers. He could get her to the top in no time, he said. And so the two of them walked toward them, slid open an unlatched door, and began to climb.
Fifteen minutes later, Germaine lay dead at the bottom of one of the silos. The Hennepin County medical examiner ruled the death accidental, caused by the profound trauma of an unbroken fall more than 100 feet onto concrete. A contributing cause, according to the medical examiner, was acute alcohol intoxication—or, as a headline later put it more bluntly, "Student in Fatal Fall Was Drunk."
That reeling image no doubt stuck with those who knew Germain only from the news. She was the drunk girl who fell off the grain elevator, an example held up in high school health classes to warn about alcohol use, another tragedy thrown off by the apparently rising tide of college drinking that has led to the well-publicized deaths of five Minnesota college students in as many years.
To those who knew Germain, however, the portrait couldn't have been more unfair. Germain, who drank no more—and often, no less—than most students, didn't climb or fall because of too much beer, they say. She climbed those silos because of who she was, because of her passion for adventure. She fell, they insist, because she had had the bad luck of stepping directly into an open hole in the dark.
But the story of Germain Vigeant's short life and sudden death doesn't fit neatly into either view. It's the story of a charismatic, big-hearted girl from St. Paul's East Side who had finally figured out her direction in life when a single misstep ended it. It's the kind of story dreaded by parents who watch with clenched hope as their children leave the protection of home to face of world of risk and choice at college—by parents who hope those kids will survive a few missteps because they're lucky enough, unlike Germain, to fall inside the odds.
L aurel Vigeant woke up unusually early on Sunday, January 29. It was 6:30 a.m. and still dark outside as she read the newspaper at her kitchen table and looked up to see two police cars and an unmarked Jeep stop in front of her modest East Side home.
She had been scouring the paper for coupons, preparing for the usual Sunday dinner with her three kids and maybe a few of their friends. Laurel never knew how many guests might show up. Her kids had always been "pretty social," as she puts it. All of them had attended the University of Minnesota, a twenty-minute drive from her house, and all were likely to call that day to ask if a roommate, a boyfriend, or a new acquaintance could join them for dinner. The more the merrier, she always told them.
Friends were especially important to her youngest, Germain, whom the family nicknamed "Hooter" when she was a baby. Since middle school, the lithe and active girl with a big smile had routinely shown up at her mother's door with friends of all kinds. Some were known and solid; others were new and wild looking, often troubled and in need of friendship. Laurel took them in without question, offering a pizza, a Coke, a willing ear, a place to hang out—if only, at times, to keep her youngest daughter close at hand.
Although Germain's choice of friends sometimes alarmed her family, her parents saw it as a sign of her compassion. "She absolutely had a strong sense of right and wrong, and she was fiercely loyal to those concepts and to her friends," says her father, Duane ("Buzz") Vigeant, a retired sales representative and employee trainer at Best Buy. "I did not always approve of her friends. But if you got past the blue hair or the pierced eyebrow, you usually saw a kernel of good in them. Germain's instincts about good and bad people were on spot. She took you for who you really were, not who you appeared to be."
Her parents, who divorced after Germain graduated from high school, say they never mistrusted Germain. But her mother, particularly, was realistic enough to keep a close eye on her wild, friendly child. The East Side had become a tough place for kids in the nearly thirty years since the Vigeants had purchased the three-bedroom house and begun their family. In that transitional neighborhood, Germain required a level of vigilance that her older sister and brother didn't seem to need. She was a night owl, staying up until all hours, even at home, where her mother might find her at 4:30 in the morning flossing her teeth and listening to music. But Germain didn't do drugs, friends and family say. She smoked, sure, and she might sneak out now and then to share a forty-ounce bottle of Icehouse with her friends, but she never got out of control, they say.
Still, if doing something fun was also a little risky, she wouldn't hold herself back. Usually, it was benign fun—quirky, playful, witty, and irreverent—such as scribbling graffiti over nearly every square inch of her bedroom walls. Her desire to have a good time seemed almost genetic, part of an ingrained affinity for adventure. Her father insists she had a "Frenchy gene" from his side of the family. "It's the inclination to be a little naughty at times—not mean-spirited, not cruel, not disrespectful," he says. Laurel, who began working a a part-time nanny when Germain was six, would spend her nights making sure her youngest child's fun didn't go too far. If Germain wasn't home by midnight, Laurel would go looking for her. Laurel made a point of staying home on weekends, ready to take a phone call at any hour if Germain needed help. She opened her home to Germain and her friends, and drove everybody home if it got late. "It was a part-time job for me, parenting that kid," Laurel recalls. "She had a lot of energy. A lot of energy."
Teachers at Harding High School remember Germain's pluck, wit, and intelligence, as well as her laid-back approach to grades. At her high school graduation in 2003, where she was named the senior with the "best sense of humor," she emerged with A's in the classes she loved, C's and D's in those she didn't. When she was accepted by the University of Minnesota's General College, which targeted students with lower achievement but high promise, Germain said, "See Ma? If I'd had all A's and B's, I might not have gotten in." For her mother, who had never gone to college but whose goal was to see all three of her children graduate from the U of M, Germain was the hardest sell.
"You were always hoping she'd get in, you were always working with her," Laurel says. "But she was special, that one. I used to tell her, 'Germain, some day people are going to read your name.'"
D espite a penchant for being at least an hour late to everything and scattering her clothes around her room, Germain had learned to handle responsibility at an early age. She had worked at a neighborhood bakery and a crafts store throughout high school. To her friends and family, she sometimes revealed an uncommon maturity, punctuated by compassion and humor. When the family dog had to be put to sleep, Germain volunteered to take the animal to the vet, stopping at McDonald's to buy a couple of burgers for its last meal. One of her best friends, Jake Scheiber, recalls that in high school Germain once lifted her foot to let a spider pass undisturbed beneath it. "I thought, 'Wow! You don't see that every day,'" Scheiber says. "That was just kind of how she was. She did things you didn't understand until you grew up."
It had been hard for Germain to leave her friends from Harding, where fewer than 15 percent of the student body goes on to college. Her first semester at the U of M was especially difficult, made more so by her parents' separation and an 8 a.m. French class, which she failed. She was placed on academic probation. But Carole Broad, her adviser, says she watched Germain rise above the setback with diligence and organization, playfully addressing her "Yo Carole!" in e-mails. "She had an unusual spark," Broad recalls. "She had constant joy and connected with others on such a deep level. I always had confidence she would make it through."
By the winter of 2006, in the middle of her junior year, Germain had hit her stride. A sociology major, she was getting all A's and B's. She had also widened her range of friends, who would remember her as someone who listened, offered advice, and routinely found ways to make others feel special. Her college friends loved her playful, in-the-moment passion, her witty one-liners and impromptu raps, and the way she often announced her arrival by raising her arms and wiggling her hips with a little "Heyyyyyy!" Germain hated pretense. She rarely wore makeup and liked to dress in baggy, comfortable clothes, wearing, as a kind of trademark, mismatched socks.
She had found a vision for her life. Her goal was to be a social worker and to return to the East Side to help the kind of troubled kids she often brought to her family's table. "A lot of her friends really got the short end of the stick," says her sister, Danielle, who had talked with Germain about graduate school. "She knew how to see things from the other side." According to her brother, Felix, Germain wanted to give such kids what her mother had given the Vigeant kids and their friends—a "solid parenting-type figure" who sometimes offered her home as a safe have.
So on that early Sunday morning last January, when Laurel spotted a pair of police officers walking up to the house with a younger man who wasn't wearing a uniform, she figured it was just another kid in trouble and was relieved to see it wasn't one of her own. When the officers stepped into her living room (the other man turned out to be a chaplain), they asked her to sit down. After refusing a couple of times, Laurel finally plunked herself on the carpet. The officers told her there'd been an accident at a grain elevator near the university campus.
"It's my Hootie?" Laurel half asked, half said.
They told her Germain was dead.
"I remember right away I got a little defensive," she recalls. "I said to them, 'It looks like she was toying with trouble, and Germain's not like that.'"
G ermain's family buried her in her favorite red t-shirt, a hoodie, and mismatched socks. The visitation drew more than 800 people. Flower arrangements flooded the Wulff Funeral Home in St. Paul, sending staff scrambling for extra stands to display them. As the family waited out the delay, Felix joked that Germain was, as usual, late—now even for her own wake. Later, Laurel stood by Germain's open coffin for five hours, greeting each visitor. There were kids from the East Side and kids from the U of M, co-workers, teachers from elementary school through college, even people Laurel had never met but who told her how much Germain meant to them.
"It looked like the midway at the state fair," she says. "I thought, 'Who are all these people?' I couldn't believe how many lives she had touched. I guess when you stay up until three in the morning, you meet a lot of people."
Two weeks later, following an autopsy, the family learned that Germain had been intoxicated when she died. Then, on March 8, an investigator with the Hennepin County medical examiner's office called Laurel to discuss releasing that fact to the public. Media requests were deluging the ME's office; coincidentally, the previous week, the university's Boynton Health Service had released a report showing a striking increase among U of M students in binge drinking—defined as having more than five drinks on a single occasion, according to an ongoing survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control. Laurel agreed to let the medical examiner go public with the fact that the alcohol level in Germain's blood at the time of her death was above the legal limit for driving.
But the next day's front-page displays stunned and angered family and friends. "The headlines were really crummy," says Danielle. "They made her into a stereotype of just another drunk college girl." Laurel indignantly refused a reporter's request to publicly discuss Germain's death to help other high-risk drinkers. "She wasn't ever a problem drinker where she would become drunk and angry," Laurel says. "I was never concerned about her. She was doing what other kids do."
In fact, it's striking how typical Germain was when it came to drinking. Like most students, she drank chiefly on the weekends, not during the school week. Like most, she rarely, if ever, drank herself sick. Though six months shy of the legal drinking age in Minnesota, she was at the age when most female college students say they drink the most. She, like most students who drink in college, lived in a rental house with peers who liked to party on weekends.
She also lived in the Upper Midwest, a decidedly "wet" environment. Minnesota and its four adjacent neighbors consistently rank highest in the nation for the percentage of adults who report binge or high-risk drinking. The U of M, says Boynton Health Service director Ed Ehlinger, is surrounded by a "culture of alcohol," a culture reinforced by beer ads during sports broadcasts on national television and by widespread acceptance, even among parents, that the college years are a time to party. "As many parents note and remember themselves, alcohol is part of college life, and it has been for centuries," Ehlinger says.
It's also a matter of simple economics. Beer is cheap and readily available. For students on a budget, a perfect night is a party with flowing kegs, where $5 will get you a cup and unlimited refills. Complaints by residents in neighborhoods surrounding the U of M campus have led, in the past three years, to sporadic crackdowns especially on underage drinkers who attend those parties; Minneapolis police once confiscated twenty-six kegs from a local house party. But keggers are hardly new and not going away.
What's changed, say the experts, is the intensity of the drinking. Though, nationally, fewer college students are choosing to drink, those who do are drinking more—much more. THe Boynton survey released in March showed a spike in high-risk drinking. Of the 3,000 students surveyed, 45 percent said they'd had more than five drinks in one sitting during the previous two weeks; a 12 percent increase over the previous year, the biggest jump in a decade. Police report routinely arresting underage drinkers around campus with blood alcohol levels well above .3, which is close to life-threatening. "The kids they are taking in are really hammered," says Steve Johnson, deputy chief of the U of M police department. "They're much more intoxicated than in the past.
James Rothenberger, the university's Morse Distinguished Teaching Instructor of Public Health, who has studied college alcohol use for three decades, says he's seen a big shift in the way today's students drink. "It's never just two drinks—it's going all out," he says. "I sometimes ask parents how much they drank on a heavy night of drinking when they were in college. They'll say maybe five to eight drinks. Today, kids are having five to eight drinks before they go to the party, at the preparty." Many of those students—maybe chugging Red Bull to keep themselves alert—will end the night with twelve drinks under their belt.
Such choices come at a cost, of course. In the Boynton survey, students who reported drinking excessively were, on average, five times more likely than nondrinkers to suffer "negative consequences"—everything from getting into a fight and being arrested to contemplating suicide, being sexually assaulted, or having a life-threatening accident. Since 2001, seven students in Minnesota and Wisconsin have either walked or fallen into rivers or lakes after leaving parties or bars. Researchers at Boston University estimate that, nationally, 1,700 students at four-year colleges die each year from all manner of alcohol-related accidents. Of those, fifty die from the alcohol itself.
Rothenberger points out, moreover, that alcohol-related deaths don't just happen to alcoholics or otherwise troubled young people. "These are just nice, average kids," he says. "It's not like they're the mythical town drunk [or] that they're failing out of school." When Rothenberger heard about Germain Vigeant's death, he thought how typical she seemed, that she was doing nothing out of the ordinary when she explored the grain elevator after drinking. "We've all known kids who have done that," he says.
Typical or not, Germain's friends—many of whom were at the same party that night in January—bristle at the idea that she was a high-risk drinker. "Some kids say, 'Hey, let's get drunk and do this,' but it wasn't like that at all," says Kim Zeszutek, Germain's roommate for three years. Germain would often joke about "how drunk" she felt after just a couple of beers. At five feet, five inches and 117 pounds, it probably wouldn't take much alcohol to affect her. Yes, she was exceptionally funny that night, singing off-color raps in the kitchen between 1 and 2 a.m. But she wasn't stumbling or incoherent, her friends say. "She was the same as she was stone-cold sober, maybe just a little louder," her former boyfriend, Jake Johnson, recalls.
Of course, peers—especially if they've also been drinking—are notoriously unreliable when estimating how drunk their friends are, research shows. Germain probably couldn't judge for herself that night. Not surprisingly, the Boynton survey found that students' ability to gauge their own intoxication falls off dramatically the more they drink.
So no one, not even Germain, knew that her blood alcohol level had climbed to .152 as she set out that night for Van Cleve Park near her rental house Even at that level, and perhaps feeling the onset of confusion or impaired balance, it no doubt would have been just one more benign night of good times if she had stayed at her house and continued partying with her friends.
"But it wasn't contained in the house, was it?" Ed Ehlinger says. "They took it outside."
A tragedy's aftermath is often a collision of futile What Ifs. What if the moon hadn't been new that night? What if fog hadn't dimmed the city's lights? What if someone hadn't pried the grate off the opening atop one of the Bunge silos, maybe just to hear the echo of a beer bottle shattering ten stories below? What if Germain had stepped a few inches to the left or tripped on the thick curb surrounding the opening and caught herself on the rim?
Or what if she'd gone to bed, watched TV, and chickened out of calling Damon Vaughan that night? She had met him five months earlier, when he moved his belongings into the Como area house where she'd lived the previous year. As usual, Germain was late that day, still packing her stuff when Damon arrived with his. They had connected immediately. "The first thing I noticed was that she had vinyl records of punk bands," Damon says. "I didn't know anybody else who listened to that kind of thing, and I thought it was really cool."
Damon had a passion for snowboarding, which was one reason he had left St. Louis for Minnesota. Sturdy and strong, soft-spoken and thoughtful, he was drawn to the adventure of rock climbing and the discipline of tae kwon do. Standing in the house that day, he immediately liked Germain's sense of fun, her friendliness, banter, and wit, and the way she said his name every few moments as they talked. She had a boyfriend. Still, Germain and Damon would be living only a block apart. Throughout the autumn of 2005, the two would flirt when they ran into each other at parties or the bus stop.
On January 29, a few days after Germain had broken up with her boyfriend, Jake Johnson, she and Damon met for the first time on purpose. According to her friends, Germain had been toying all evening with the idea of calling him. At about 2:30 a.m., after her roommates had gone upstairs to watch TV or go to bed, she finally dialed his number. They chatted for a bit and hung up. About a half hour later, he called back and asked if she wanted to take a walk. A few minutes after that, he was waiting for her in front of her house.
The foggy night was unusually dark. About an inch of snow had fallen a few hours earlier, but no moonlight illuminated it. Damon says he knew she had been drinking, but she didn't look or seem drunk. He'd had some beers himself that night, he says, but had stopped drinking around midnight. His memory of their conversation is vivid. "She definitely didn't act drunk except for being talkative," he says. "But she was always supertalkative. Like, she would never stop talking."
Their immediate plan was to play on Van Cleve Park's ice rink. But the unseasonable temperatures had turned the ice to slush. Just beyond the park, the Bunge silo formed a wall of white in the dark. Germain told Damon that one of her friends had dressed up as the towers for Halloween. They laughed. He had already told her that he had explored the elevator nearly a dozen times. She had said that was cool.
It had been hard to get into the structure the first time he tried, in April 2005; he had to climb a ladder and squeeze through an opening between a pipe and a window ten feet off the ground. The grain elevator, one of scores built early in the twentieth century at the convergence of the Pacific Northern and Great Northern rail lines in southeast Minneapolis, had been shut down in 2003, its doors padlocked. In the summer of 2005, however, urban adventurers—ignoring NO TRESPASSING signs—began sneaking under the chainlink fence, ascending the silos' exteriors, and either climbing into the windows or prying open doors. Taggers covered the walls, stairways, and pipes with graffiti. At the pinnacle of the surface facing I-35W, someone painted RAD in giant letters. On the park side, ATTAKTHEGLOBE was painted in huge letters, one atop each silo.
That night, Damon wanted to show Germain the vistas he had enjoyed on previous visits—to climb to the top of the tower in front of them or go to his favorite spot, where the silos' curved roofs overlooked the city skyline. Germain was "a little scared" about meeting "creepy people," she told him, but she wanted to proceed. As Damon recounts it, the decision to climb was merely an extension of the walk, not a quest for adventure or a dance with danger. Still, as he looks back on the moment that they moved with purpose toward the towers, he struggles to make sense of the elevator's seduction. "I wouldn't say that it drew us in, necessarily," he says. "I just think it was like we had to go somewhere. Or maybe it did [draw us in], because we did go straight there without any kind of zigzagging or anything. If you look at our course or path, it was right to the grain elevator."
Entering was easy this time—they walked through an unlocked door to the main tower. They had no flashlight and didn't think to use their cell phones for illumination. As they trekked up the switchback of metal stairs, Germain heard noises that seemed to spook her a bit. Damon says he told her they could leave, but she wanted to keep moving. Instead of climbing to the top of the tower, they veered in a different direction, across a covered catwalk and along the large enclosed area atop the silos to a door that led back outside.
They moved along a windowed wall, past a series of three-foot-square openings in the floor at the top of the silos. Designed so grain could be loaded from the top, the openings were bordered by raised curbs and usually covered by grates. Damon could barely see the outline of the door at the third silo down from the catwalk. As they walked slowly toward it, hand in hand, he suddenly felt Germain's grip slip out of his. Without a scream or a sound of any kind, he says, she disappeared. Seconds later, he heard a tremendous noise echoing up the empty silo. It was the sound of Germain hitting the cement floor.
"I knew what happened immediately, but it didn't make sense," he says. "She fell, and it was instantaneous. She was gone. It wasn't like she tripped [over one of the curbs]. You'd think she'd put one foot on the left side or the right side and maybe fall sideways a little big. But it was more just like straight down."
He says he leaned over the edge of the opening and yelled her name. He ran down to the bottom of the silos, where he'd seen a doorway. He was thinking, he says, of how a man had reportedly survived a fall into a grain elevator. He recalled a conversation with a skydiver, who told him that some people have survived a parachute failure. He was hoping and despairing all at once, terrified and numb, incredulous and dreadfully certain. At the base of the silos, he says, he rammed his shoulder several times against a bolted door. He climbed about fifteen feet up a ladder on the side of the silo. He called her cell phone. Then he called 911.
W hen Minneapolis police officer Thomas Campbell and his partner arrived at the site two minutes later, Damon waved them down on the street. Damon was, according to Campbell's report, frightened shocked, and out of breath, yet able to clearly recount what had happened. With a flashlight in hand, Campbell led Damon up the stairs. The officer recalls it was pitch black, darker than it had been on other nights when he had scaled the elevator in pursuit of trespassers. "You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," he says. "It was strange, because up there where she fell there are windows all around. But there was no moonlight. No light from anywhere."
Germain wasn't moving when Campbell's flashlight caught the red of her jacket at the bottom of the silo. Paramedics labored for more than an hour to remove her body, having to enter and exit through a small hole near the silo floor. The autopsy showed she had died instantly. "It was really a death trap when you drop through the floor and go down on your feet," says Roberta Geiselhart, who oversaw the medical examiner's investigation. Though the fall, not the alcohol, killed Germain, Geiselhart says she had no second thoughts about listing intoxication as a "significant condition" in Germain's death. With few exceptions, Geiselhart says, being above the legal limit for driving is listed in accidental deaths when the victim's decision-making ability is questioned. "here we have someone walking around in the dark in a grain elevator after she'd been drinking," she says. "Maybe she could handle that alcohol. Some people can. But it could have impaired her judgement."
To Ed Ehlinger, overseeing the university's efforts to stem the effects of high-risk drinking among students, Germain's decision to climb, not simply her drinking, was the problem. He says the university can't stop students from partying, but it can strike at the choices students make when they're drunk, urging them to call 911 if someone has passed out and to wait until they're sober before taking a dare. "They'll still do stupid things," Ehlinger says. "We'll never be 100 percent successful in decreasing these high-risk behaviors. But maybe we can decrease it by one life lost, so that a person who's been drinking doesn't try to swim across the river or go up in a grain elevator."
But months after her death, her roommates and East Side friends, gathered in the house where she last lived, are adamant in their belief that alcohol didn't compel Germain to climb or cause her to fall. More relevant, they say, was the documented lack of security at the towers. Three months before her death, the Southeast Como Improvement Association, a neighborhood group, sent a letter complaining about those lapses to the elevator's owner, Bunge North America, in Savage. The company said it was addressing the problem with spot security checks. Yet residents were still complaining to the city in January. After Germain's death—and, coincidentally on the same March day the news broke about her intoxication—the neighborhood group held a meeting to discuss the towers' safety problems. Still, Germain's friends say they resented the way some neighbors at the meeting blamed her drinking instead of the company's questionable oversight.
"They used alcohol and drinking by a college kid as an excuse for not having [the site] more protected," says Nicole Muzzy, who met Germain when they were U of M freshmen. Mardi Palan, one of Germain's roommates, agrees. "It's exhausting," she says. "If there were no alcohol, there would still be things like this."
The night after Germain's death, several of her friends, holding forty-ounce bottles of Colt.45 and Mickey's, walked to the Bunge silos. They stood together and toasted Germain, who had often laughed about the absurd size of those bottles. Then they poured out the beer and arranged the bottles in a heart shape to honor their friend.
T he Bunge elevator, says Germain's mother, was almost a fated place for her daughter's death. Whatever compelled Germain to climb the tower was more her nature than any outside influence. In Germain's old room—now painted bright yellow, where Laurel stores stacks of cards, letters, clippings, and scrapbooks from the funeral—she can still envision the graffiti that once decorated the walls. "It was all over," Laurel says. "Once I saw the grain elevator, it was like it had her name on it."
In the weeks following Germain's death—and maybe, in some instances, because of it—people climbed the towers until Bunge hired a round-the-clock security watch. Someone spray-painted Germain's name in large red letters at the bottom of one of the silos. In June, Bunge sold the property to the nonprofit housing organization Project for Pride in Living, which announced plans to tear down the silos in the fall and build mixed-income homes on the site. PPL immediately had nearly all the graffiti whitewashed and bolted huge metal plates over the entrances.
Buzz Vigeant says he has been visiting the site at least three times a week, standing next to the silo where Germain fell and talking softly to his daughter. He says he's thought about filing a negligence lawsuit against Bunge, but believes his chances in court would be slim. He says he's both relieved and discomfited by the thought of the towers' demolition. In early June, he scooped up pebbles from the silo and says the stones are "infused with the spirit of Hooter."
Damon Vaughan, who walks past the towers every day, just wants the structures torn down. He was charged with trespassing in the case, but the city agreed to a year's continuance, with a pending dismissal. Shortly after the accident, he dropped his classes. With plans to resume school in the fall, he spends his days delivering food for University Dining Services and, when he can, rock climbing. He replays that January night in his head and still thinks about how things might have been different if he'd taken a flashlight—which, he says, was their biggest mistake. "I'll think about it for the rest of my life," he says of the accident. "And I'll go over all the different parts of it. People always tell me, 'It'll get better,' or, 'You'll get over it.' It's not something you get over. You just take it and use it and learn to live with it."
Two months after Germain's death, Damon found his way to Laurel's house, where he's spent hours on two occasions talking about Germain. For Laurel, the conversations have offered a chance to keep her daughter's memory alive. For Damon, the talks have helped him to better know the girl who slipped from his grip. And Laurel, as she has for other troubled kids Germain brought to her door, has given him comforting words. On his first visit, a formal session overseen by a police counselor and attended by the Vigeant family, Laurel said, "Damon, for some reason, it was Germain's time. At least she died holding the hand of a person she liked. I hope when I die I'm holding the hand of a person I like."
When Damon left that evening, Laurel was surrounded by remnants of her daughter's life and death: her school ID, her favorite black tennis shoes placed next to a U of M sign, the purse she was carrying when she fell. When Laurel looks forward, she dreams of continuing a scholarship fund that her son's friends started in Germain's name to help East Side kids. When she looks back, she feels both the joy and sorrow of a mother who had just begun to see the promise of her wild child unfold almost like wings.
"I got to see her go in the right direction," she says, alluding, with pride, to her daughter's college years. "I got to see her really change. I got to see that little seed growing."
Gayle Golden is a freelance journalist and teaches at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.