The Day Tragedy Struck a Small Town on the Toms River
Pine Beach Police Chief John M. Sgro recalls the trauma of the day three young people died
Pine Beach Police Chief John M. Sgro was getting ready for work around 6:40 a.m. Feb. 3 when he heard the fire whistle blow.
"Within five minutes, my phone started ringing," he said in an interview in his office Tuesday. "It's a bad sign."
Sgro knew that a call right after the fire whistle meant one thing — bad news. Very bad news.
"An officer called on the cell phone to tell me we had a car into the school," he said.
That frigid Thursday turned out to be a day of trauma for Sgro and his small police department. It was the day that three young people died in a horrific crash, when their car careened into the brick east wall of the Pine Beach Elementary School.
It's a day that none of them will forget, Sgro said.
"I got dressed and went right out," he said. "When I got there, I faced the full extent of what had occurred. It was a shock, for sure."
A black 2011 Hyundai Accent was upended against the school wall. The force of the impact ripped a 6-by-6 foot hole in the brick wall, into the school's media center. Inside the Hyundai were the driver, Matthew Budesa, 20, the the son of longtime borough councilman Robert Budesa; Kimberly Van Gorden, 20, Beachwood; and Matthew Witzgall, 21, of Toms River. All three were already gone by the time help arrived, Sgro said.
It fell to Sgro to go to the home of Robert and Linda Budesa to tell them their son was dead. A phone call was not an option, he said.
"That was one of the hardest things I've ever done," said Sgro, who has been on the police department for 22 years. "You remember that child being born. You remember when his mother was a borough crossing guard. She would put Matthew in the car seat in the van. I can remember it like it was yesterday. That just made it harder."
Police and investigators from the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office knew who two of the three young people in the mangled car were. Both Budesa and Van Gorden had carried their wallets. But Witzgall had no identification, which made a difficult day even worse.
Matthew Witzgall's mother had learned of an accident in Pine Beach through Facebook, the chief said.
"That poor woman called here and was asking if that was her son," Sgro said with a grimace.
Sgro couldn't tell her, not until he heard back from the Prosecutor's Office. Witzgall's frantic mother came down to the police station. And still he couldn't tell her, until he had official confirmation from the Prosecutor's Office.
"She had to sit here and wait and wait," he said. "I had to sit across the hall until we were finally able to confirm it was him."
Sgro said he was not surprised than anyone living nearby had not heard the impact.
"It was the middle of winter," he said "People's windows are closed up. It was windy that night, which is also going to play a part in what you hear. Route 9 wasn't open. All of the businesses were closed."
How fast was the car going? That question may never be answered.
"Fast," Sgro said. "That's all I can tell you. I can't speculate. It was an extremely high speed, just by judging the damage to the car and the building."
The car was registered to Matthew's mother.
Sgro also won't speculate on why or how the crash happened. He won't speculate on why the car plowed into the elementary school Matthew had attended as a child. He will leave that up to the Prosecutor's Office.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford released preliminary results of toxicological tests done on all three victims. The narcotic painkiller oxycodone and metabolized cocaine was found in all three of their systems. But it was not enough to rule that the accident was caused by drug use, Ford said.
When Sgro finally went home that night, he was drained, physically and emotionally.
"It was a pretty long day," he said. "It felt like an eternity."