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U. of Pittsburgh
Details emerge in fatal fall of Pitt football player

Friends and family gather at church to remember Billy Gaines

Friday, June 20, 2003

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Three hours before Billy Gaines balanced on two wooden boards and wormed his way through a crawl space high above a Homestead church sanctuary, he had a final conversation with his girlfriend.

Kicker David Abdul, left, was with his roommate, University of Pittsburgh football player Billy Gaines, when Gaines fell to his death at a Homestead church. Abdul returned to the scene yesterday with his girlfriend, Nicole Shilling. Click photo for larger image. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Gaines, a wide receiver on the University of Pittsburgh football team, had endured a streak of bad luck. He was forced to relocate a few weeks ago because of an apartment fire. And on Tuesday he had lost his wallet. As a result, Natalie Augustine said, her boyfriend was depressed when they spoke by phone Tuesday night at 11:30.

"He was like, 'What else can happen? What else can go wrong?' He was down in the pits about that," Augustine said yesterday. "I said to him for some reason twice that night, 'Don't do anything stupid.' I don't know why. I never do."

Around 2:30 a.m., Gaines tumbled off the planks and through a false ceiling. He plummeted 25 feet past a large stained-glass window depicting four saints until he hit a pew in the rear of the sanctuary of St. Anne Church. He suffered spinal injuries and a fractured skull and was taken to Mercy Hospital.

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, with family and friends at the hospital, he was pronounced dead. The cause of death remains undetermined pending toxicology tests by the Allegheny County coroner's office.

Travis Sheets agonizes over the death of his high school friend Billy Gaines outside St. Anne Roman Catholic Church in Homestead, where the University of Pittsburgh football player was fatally injured in a fall early Tuesday morning. Click photo for larger image. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Yesterday, the large group that had journeyed from his hometown in Maryland and from other places to buoy Gaines in his last hours stopped at the church to bear witness to where he fell. About a dozen friends sat on the church steps for a time late in the morning before going inside to remove Gaines' personal effects. They were joined by car after car of friends and relatives, some red-eyed and teary.

"It about killed me to see how high up he was when he came flying down. It was devastating," said Gaines' mother, Kimberly, who addressed reporters outside the church.

"Billy was a believer, and I know where he is," she said, her voice breaking. "He's in heaven, but I want him with me."

Brad Anderson, part of a group of five friends from middle school days, rushed to Pittsburgh after hearing about the accident.

With hands stuffed into his pockets and eyes puffy and red, Anderson served as a spokesman for the throng that surrounded him outside the church at Sylvan and West Eleventh avenues.

"We needed to be here. More than likely, it was going to be the last time we would see him breathing, alive, basically. We had been his brothers since sixth grade," Anderson said. "Billy would want us all to smile, keep our heads high, don't let this get us down."

The sanctuary at St. Anne Roman Catholic Church in Homestead, where Billy Gaines suffered fatal injuries Tuesday after falling 25 feet from a crawl space in the ceiling onto the pews below. Click photo for larger image. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Gaines, a 19-year-old sophomore from Ijamsville, Md., was with at least four friends at the time of his death, three of them fellow football players. They had gathered for a Tuesday night dinner ritual at the church, according to Gaines's roommate, Pitt kicker David Abdul.

On the invitation of the Rev. Henry Krawczyk, pastor of the parish containing St. Anne, Gaines and Abdul had been temporarily staying at the church's old convent since their apartment fire in Oakland.

Kimberly Gaines said her son had met Krawczyk last year while maintaining grounds at a cemetery. After the fire, she said, Krawczyk offered the two lodging.

"I trusted that my son was in a church and he would be safe," she said.

According to Adbul, the group ate a hamburger dinner with Krawczyk Tuesday before going their separate ways.

The boys ended up hanging out. In the middle of the night, Abdul said, he, Gaines and one of their teammates began poking around the hard-to-reach areas of the church.

"There's no reason. We were just checking the place out," Abdul said. They decided to venture into the crawl space for the first time, Abdul said. He dismissed rumors that Gaines was trying to find a signature rumored to be in the crawl space.

Kimberly Gaines describes her son's fatal journey to explore a Homestead church. Click photo for larger image. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Kimberly Gaines described the route taken by the boys: up a steep set of concrete steps and then up a "rickety little ladder" to a long corridor suspended far above the pews with "big, thick planks" running through it.

Gaines and Abdul ended up on their hands and knees in a corridor that extends the length of the sanctuary. It is usually used by church workers to change ceiling lights, but on Tuesday it became a dangerous playground for the pair of college students.

The two crawled along in the dark -- Abdul estimated 30 yards with no flashlights, no source of illumination -- until they decided to head back.

"We were out there pretty far and we decided we should turn around," Abdul said. "He just slipped and fell."

Abdul said he heard the noise of Gaines breaking through the ceiling. He said he assumed that Gaines miscalculated his position on the boards and put his weight where there was no support.

"I think he was too far over on the left," Abdul said.

Asked if the group had been drinking, Abdul said no. Police would not comment on whether alcohol was used.

"I've heard different things, but I don't feel I can say anything without proof," Kimberly Gaines said.

Krawczyk could not be reached for comment.

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, declined comment on the accident, other than to confirm that Krawczyk was present when Gaines fell.

"I've been instructed by the Allegheny County Police Department and Homestead police not to give out details while it's under investigation," Lengwin said.

Anyone residing in a facility owned by the diocese must be granted permission to stay by diocesan officials. Lengwin would not say whether Gaines and Abdul had received such permission.

While friends from Maryland pack the belongings of Billy Gaines into a pickup truck, his brother Michael, 16, and grandmother, Marie Jeannine Sniffin, comforted each other outside St. Anne Roman Catholic Church in Homestead yesterday. Click photo for larger image. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

As a result of the accident, Krawczyk has temporarily stepped down from his duties at St. Maximilian Kolbe parish.

"The impact on him was very great, and he asked to be relieved of his parochial responsibilities temporarily, and we agreed, pending the results of the investigation," Lengwin said.

Throughout Pitt, Gaines was mourned.

"It doesn't get any worse than this for a coach, but even more so for the family. All of our players are like family, but Billy was a special guy to us," Pitt head football coach Walt Harris said.

Harris recalled how Gaines cried when Pitt offered him a football scholarship. He said Gaines, who stood 5-feet-7 and 170 pounds, didn't think he would make the team because of his size.

"The players took this very hard. When you are young, you don't have to deal with death and issues of your own mortality. That's the great part of youth, they think they are going to live forever," Harris said. "These are highly conditioned, cream-of-the-crop athletes and have tremendous confidence in themselves. When one of their peers leaves them through death, it is a real eye opener to them and it really affects them."

J.D. Brookhart, Pitt's offensive coordinator and receivers coach, recalled a "special kid," whose death was personally devastating.

"He was a fiery young man. We used to say he brought it to the table because you saw the intensity and fire in him whether he was walking or playing football. It was contagious among all of us."

Pitt's board of trustees, which met yesterday, observed a moment of silence for Gaines.

"It is a very, very sad day for all of us. People think about the university as a big complicated place. They think about it in terms of buildings and programs. But really it is a community of people," Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said. "When something like this happens it really does stop you dead in your tracks and it's a source of great sadness."

Staff writers Paul Zeise, Bill Schackner and Anne Rodgers-Melnick contributed to this report.

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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