SOUTHINGTON — John Fusco calls it his meditation place.
Located under an overhang next to his Southington apartment, it’s a place where he and his late daughter used to spend time together. Fusco visits the meditation place about once a day. For him, it offers serenity.
“Anywhere from five minutes to half-hour,” he said. “It’s a good calming place. It’s a healing place.”
A table holds flowers and mementos that friends have left at Olivia Fusco’s grave. Artwork created by Olivia hangs on the walls.
On July 28, 2015, Olivia Fusco, 14, and AnnMarie “Annie” Olender, 16, were killed in a crash on Interstate 84 in Southington. The two girls, students at Southington High School, were the vehicle’s only occupants.
“You would think that two years is a long time,” Fusco said. “It’s not. It’s a blink of an eye in terms of grief.”
Olivia stayed at a friend’s house the night before the accident. Her final communication with her father was that she would be going to the beach the next day with AnnMarie, and that she was happy to be spending time with her.
Fusco said his daughter planned to call him when she returned. When he hadn’t heard from her by the afternoon, he decided to go to AnnMarie’s house. When he arrived, he saw state police at the home.
“I wasn’t positive what was going on,” he said. “The state trooper approached me, asked me who I was. I gave him my name, and of course I asked him what was going on.”
“There was an accident,” the state trooper said.
Fusco was then told that his daughter and AnnMarie were killed in the crash. After giving longtime friend and AnnMarie’s father, Jim, a hug, he left the home and began to notify family members. State police said the car AnnMarie was driving crashed down an embankment and struck a tree near Exit 32 on I-84 east.
“Outside of the accident, you’re losing a child,” Fusco said. “Having to make your family aware of that, is something I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”
Two days after the accident, hundreds gathered at Southington High School for a vigil for Olivia and AnnMarie. Close to 1,000 people attended Olivia’s funeral at Mary Our Queen Church.
“To this day, it’s one of the largest attendance at Mary Our Queen,” Fusco said. “There was no place to sit down, not only standing in the back of the church but they were standing in the doorways as well.”
AnnMarie, who was going into her junior year at Southington High School, was a member of the school’s state championship softball team. Her mother, Angelina Olendar, said at that time that her daughter would be buried in her softball uniform.
“It was when she was most happy,” she said. “When she was playing ball.”
Fusco said he does not want to know the specifics of the crash, including how it occurred.
“Still not really of great importance to me,” he said. “I ask people to not share their thoughts with me, any information that they have. We know what happened. The details for me, it adds to the mountain that you need to get over to get to a better place.”
Traffic deaths in Connecticut have increased yearly since at least 2014. As of July 29, there were 172 traffic deaths recorded so far in 2017. At the same point in 2016, there were 168 to date. There were 141 traffic deaths as of July 29 in 2015.
“We have seen an upward trend in fatal crashes in the last few years, but the same can be said of all crashes,” Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center behavior analyst Marisa Auguste said, noting the number of crashes has gone up nationally as well.
Since Jan. 1, 2015, there have been 39 fatal crashes in the Meriden, Wallingford, Cheshire and Southington area. The accident involving Olivia and AnnMarie is one of two that occurred on I-84 in Southington.
Fusco said the last two years have gone by quickly.
“I was probably in shock for a year and a half, still to some degree,” he said.
In late 2015, he decided to run for office. In November, he defeated Democrat David Zoni by more than 2,000 votes and was elected to the 81st House District seat.
Fusco said being a legislator has allowed him to find a new purpose in life.
“That was kind of the answer I got out of nowhere,” he said. “That gave me something to focus my time on.”
Though Fusco acknowledged that laws can be passed, it’s up to people to make the right decisions.
“That goes back to the details,” he said. “Laws don’t save people, laws don’t prevent people from making mistakes, from making bad decisions. Laws don’t save lives. People are responsible to do that.”
Last weekend, the second-annual Ride for Liv event was held in Bristol. Proceeds from the event will go to the Olivia Fusco Friendship Foundation, with the goal of helping Southington middle school students who have special learning needs.
“It’s a great way to honor her memory,” Fusco said. “It’s something that she would be proud of.”
In an attempt to cope with the accident, Fusco has kept in touch with Olivia’s friends and has also reached out to people who lost children tragically.
“I’ve cried every day for two years,” he said. “That’s been healthy for me. We all cope with things differently in different ways. I’ve tried to keep busy and find a purpose with my life.”
Fusco said he was recently given a book from a friend who lost his daughter. He reads it frequently.
“It’s a daily meditation,” he said. “I try to get that into the hands of people who have had this type of tragedy. Helping others has been one of the big ways.”