A spirit fire, meant to guide the spirits of deceased tribe members to their resting place, has been burning since Saturday, when the Shinnecock Indian Nation awoke to the tragic news that two of its members, Duane “D.L.” White, 22, and Jason “Tek” King, 33, were killed in a car accident early that morning.
At approximately 2:23 a.m., having just made the turn onto the Shinnecock Reservation via East Gate Road from Hill Street, Mr. King lost control of the 2009 Lexus CS 350 he was driving and struck a tree. Mr. White and Mr. King were pronounced dead at the scene, according to Southampton Village Police Detective Sergeant Herman Lamison. A patrolling Village Police officer discovered the crash a short time after it had occurred.
Two other passengers in the car, Awan Gumbs, 31, and Brian N. Bess Jr., 18, were hospitalized following the crash with serious but not life-threatening injuries. They were listed as being in stable condition at Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in East Patchogue and Stony Brook University Medical Center, respectively, this week. Mr. Bess was flown to Stony Brook by Medevac helicopter following the crash.
Det. Sgt. Lamison said he believes the car exceeded the 25-mph speed limit heading west on Hill Street, but declined to speculate as to exactly how fast it was going.
Police could not say whether drugs or alcohol was a factor in the crash; however, a police report notes that one officer on the scene said that a “strong odor of an alcoholic beverage was emanating from the vehicle.” Det. Sgt. Lamison said police were waiting for toxicology reports as part of the investigation.
In a police report, Mr. Bess was quoted as saying to police, “We were drinking, we were at a party and I just wanted to leave and go home.”
Details are sketchy about where the men were coming from, but, according to the police report, three people told police that they were with Mr. Bess, Mr. White and Mr. King at a party at Mr. Bess’s home. The report does not mention whether Mr. Gumbs was at the party.
Early Saturday morning, the devastating news of the accident resonated throughout the community and crossed time zones when Tribal Trustee Lance Gumbs took a call from fellow Trustee Randy King and tribe member Avery Dennis Jr. Mr. Gumbs, who was in Albuquerque for the Gathering of the Nations Powwow, described the call as the most excruciating moment in his entire life. He was told that two men made it and two men didn’t make it, and that one of his three sons was in the car.
“That’s all I knew for over an hour and a half, sitting in a hotel room in New Mexico,” he said. “I didn’t know which son, and I didn’t know who had crossed over and who was still with us.”
According to Mr. Gumbs, his son Awan escaped the accident with a broken leg, a broken hip, three broken vertebrae disks in his lower back, and multiple broken ribs. He said Mr. Bess suffered similar injuries.
“It was mixed emotions,” Mr. Gumbs said quietly. “You’re relieved in one sense, and you’re crushed in another sense that we lost two very promising young tribal members.”
The accident scene at the “Foot of the Hill,” where the Shinnecock Nation’s border touches Hill Street, has become hallowed ground. Family and friends in mourning have gathered daily to pay their respects to Mr. King and Mr. White, and to keep the spirit fire burning.
“The community is still dealing with the shock of it,” said the Reverend Michael Smith of the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church. “We appreciate prayers and concerns. It gets overwhelming to some folks, especially the families.”
In the hours that followed the removal of the totaled Lexus from the crash site, various members of the media appeared looking for comment, upsetting some mourners. According to Southampton Village Police, while a News 12 camera crew was trying to shoot news footage, a man took their tripod and threw it into the street. Det. Sgt. Lamison said there was also a report of a man firing gunshots into the air.
While it will be a long hard road for the Nation to come to terms with the tragedy, Mr. Gumbs and Rev. Smith both said the community must begin to heal.
“In our community, there is a commitment to remember these individuals for who they were—the smiles, the good times, the fun times,” Mr. Gumbs said. “The ability to remember them in this good light is one of our strengths, and that’s what we will do. We will continue to remember these two young men for who they are, for the potential that they had in our community and warmth that both of these men extended to others in our community.”