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Family, friends celebrate Highlands student in moving vigil

| Monday, July 15, 2013, 1:06 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
A portion of a large crowd that took part in a candlelight vigil Sunday evening at Highlands High School for Ryan Richards, 17, a Highlands student who died after falling out of a moving pickup in West Deer Friday night.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Sue Richards (left), whose son Ryan died after falling out of a moving pickup in West Deer Friday night, is comforted by Heather Adams, during a Sunday evening candlelight vigil at Highlands High School in Harrison, July 14, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Bagpiper Noah Young, a student at Highlands High School, stands on a slight hill overlooking the crowd at the school and plays during a Sunday evening candlelight vigil for Ryan Richards, who died after falling out of a moving pickup in West Deer Friday night.

Many of Ryan Richards' friends called him a brother. But to only one man was he a brother in the literal meaning of the word.

Dan Richards, 25, said a brother was all he ever wanted for Christmas while growing up. He remembers when Ryan, who was eight years younger, was born.

“I was the happiest kid in the world,” Dan Richards said. “I only had one brother. Having him in my life was a gift. It was the greatest gift I ever received from anybody.”

He and other relatives joined with the Highlands School District community in remembering Ryan Richards at a candlelight vigil in the shadow of the high school in Harrison on Sunday evening.

Ryan Richards, 17, who would have been a senior this fall, died late Friday when he fell out of the bed of a moving pickup on Saxonburg Boulevard in West Deer.

Authorities said he and two others were riding in the bed of the pickup. Richards was the only one standing, and he was thrown out when the truck took a hard left at Poplar Street. He died from head injuries.

Allegheny County police could not be reached to update the status of their investigation into the incident. Police did not name the driver or other passengers. No charges were filed.

The Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death an accident.

Tears mixed with laughter as family and friends remembered Richards at the hour-long vigil. He was regarded as a solid student and a gifted athlete on the baseball and football fields.

“Ryan would be so happy to see all of you here,” said his friend and football teammate, Damen McDermott. “I love Ryan like a brother. I'm going to talk to him every day.”

McDermott said he never told Richards he loved him and asked those in the crowd to hug their friends — and they did.

“Ryan loved all you guys. I'm so happy you came for him,” McDermott said. “Life goes so fast, and you have to make every moment last. Ryan sure did that. I'll never forget everything he did for me.”

Zach Erb said he finds himself looking at the sky, at the clouds, and thinking of his friend. Despite a fight a week ago, he has only good memories.

“I know he's up there and watching over every single one of us,” he said.

Blake Leri said Richards was a brother to him since he was 5 years old.

“He was there for me. I was there for him,” he said. “We have to celebrate the life he lived.”

Michaela Bonnett called Richards the most amazing person she'd ever met.

“I can't imagine life without you. We're all going to miss you so very much,” Bonnett said. “I can't wait to be with you again someday. We'll get through this together. We're blessed to have one hell of a guardian angel.”

Richards was as well-remembered and regarded by the adults in his life as his peers.

“We're going to miss him. He'll be with us every day,” football coach Sam Albert said. “This is why I love Highlands. It's a tribute to you people and to Ryan that he brought us all together.”

Grieving is an individual process, Albert said.

“You're allowed to cry. You're allowed not to cry,” he said. “Everybody mourns in their own way. What I want you to do is rely on each other.”

Sue Fertig remembered the strong friendships Richards had, with her son and others.

“I lost a son because we all raised these kids together,” she said.

“I am just so glad all of you kids have each other,” she said. “You have something so special. Don't ever forget that. Just hold on to this forever and take Ryan everywhere you go.”

As darkness fell, the vigil concluded and candles were lighted. A small hot air balloon was launched, soaring until it became only a point of light in a starless sky.

“I love him very much,” Dan Richards said. “I'm not ready to say goodbye. I don't know how to say goodbye. He was my baby brother.”

Counselors will be available at the high school beginning Monday. For an appointment, call 724-226-1000.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or

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