Road to Disaster

updated 08/15/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For Masha Fishman, a 14-year-old from Edison, N.J., this summer was to have been another step on the path to young womanhood. "She had graduated from the stage with all the pets and animals," says her cousin Jaclyn Gadas. "Now it was all about friends, boys, music." And the striking Fishman, who dreamed of being a model, had no shortage of suitors. One was 16-year-old Igor Golovunin from Brooklyn, who had met Fishman last summer at the Atlanta Dance Camp in Upstate New York and had worked as a busboy all winter to earn money so he could return to the camp and be with her. "He wanted to spend time with Masha," says Gadas. "There was a light inside of her, and it radiated."

But then on July 27, Fishman and Golovunin and three other campers, ranging in age from 12 to 16, climbed into a 1994 compact car driven by counselor Irina Mironova, 25, for a day trip of swimming at a local lake. Around noon, with Mironova driving very fast and erratically on rural Route 17B—according to some witnesses she appeared to be going about 100 m.p.h.—the car swerved into the oncoming lane, slammed headlong into a dump truck and was obliterated in a spray of metal fragments and body parts. So horrific was the accident, which instantly killed all six occupants, that the fire chief on the scene sent away his youngest firefighters to shield them from the trauma. "We kept our seasoned guys, who are more acclimated," says Glenn Somers, the Monticello fire chief, who supervised the four-hour removal of the remains. "But I don't know if anyone is ever acclimated [to this]."

A number of troubling questions quickly emerged in the aftermath of the tragedy. It turned out that Mironova, an accomplished volleyball player, had been ticketed in Florida in May for going 107 m.p.h. and had subsequently had her license suspended—a violation that Anna Kapitannikova, the owner of the camp, which catered largely to Russian emigre families, insists she knew nothing about. For now, the devastated families seem more intent on mourning their dead than blaming Kapitannikova, whose 16-year-old son, Illya, was one of those killed. "We're not mad at her; she lost a son too," says Gadas. "The only person we're mad at is the driver, and what can we get from her? Nothing, not even an apology." Like the other victims, Masha loved the camp, which specialized in teaching all types of dance—including ballroom, salsa and jazz. (It was not clear whether the camp was accredited with any organization.) At her wake in Edison, 400 schoolmates and relatives showed up. But nothing could console Masha's parents, Vadin, a dental technician, and Galina, a stay-at-home mom, as they knelt by the front pew. "Now it's like their life is over," says Masha's aunt Regina. "She was the epitome of the daddy's girl. He would look at her and his face would light up."

At a Russian Orthodox convent in Nanuet, N.Y., best friends Illya Kapitannikova and Golovunin were laid to rest next to each other. During the service Igor's mother, overcome with grief, fainted. "Both mothers were hugging the caskets," says Maria Federowski, the wife of the presiding pastor. "Each mother blames herself, saying, 'Why? Why? Why my son? I don't want to continue living. I want to be with him.'" Meanwhile, the family of Anatoliy Cheremnykh, 14, whose love of skateboarding was rivaled by his enthusiasm for break dancing, mourned their loss. "He couldn't wait to go to camp," says his cousin Alena Gripass, 12.

The youngest of the victims, Gabrielle Soybelman, 12, whose family had emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1988, lived in Brooklyn with her grandparents; her mother died of lymphoma when she was still a baby. "She had to grow up fast," says her brother Vitaly Garaz, 28, "but she was a happy girl." An ardent Harry Potter fan, Gabrielle had recently purchased the newest addition to the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and read nearly 600 pages in a day. At her funeral on July 29, her copy of the book was placed in the coffin with her.

As for the Fishmans, parents of the beautiful young Masha, they plan to move out of their house temporarily as soon as possible. "It's too much for them, to have her room right next to them, all of her collages, her photos, all her things," says Masha's cousin Jaclyn. "She was like their reason for living."

Bill Hewitt. Nina Burleigh and Diane Herbst in Monticello, Lisa Ingrassia in Edison, Susan Keating in Washington, D.C., Fernanda Santos in Brooklyn, Melody Simmons in Owings Mills and Michelle York in Nanuet

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