Breaking News

‘A loss can change a whole town’

Eva Houlihan still can’t remember the car crash the night of April 5, 2021 and doctors have told her parents she likely never fully will.

Eva, then-16, was two weeks shy of her scheduled driver’s test at the DMV and was looking forward to all the independence that comes with a license. Instead, she was in a coma and fighting for her life.

The past year of Eva’s life has largely been put on hold, including her senior year, as she learned how to talk again and move her legs and arms – even if only just an inch at a time. Her parents cut her meals for her until she re-taught herself how to scoop food onto a fork and bring it up to her mouth.

She was given a second chance at life, albeit a changed one from the one she had prior to the crash.

This was also supposed to be Ryan Rutledge’s senior year at Pomperaug High School. Eva’s boyfriend, he was in line to become a senior leader on Pomperaug’s varsity football and lacrosse teams.

Instead, the bridge on Roxbury Road in their hometown of Southbury has a wooden cross standing in front of it in his honor. Various mementos and a pennant flag with the letter ‘R’ are in front of the cross, as a memorial to the teenager who once had the whole world ahead of him. Rutledge, who was driving Eva that night, did not survive the single-car crash, dying at the scene, according to the police report.


Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.

Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.

Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media


Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April. | Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

This is a new reality for Eva, for her parents Jerry Houlihan and Elizabeth Gower, for the Rutledge family and the Southbury community. It’s a reality that still stings raw with memory and pain. One life was tragically lost, while another was given a second chance at life.

First high school love

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge were similar in many ways: outgoing, good at making friends, competitive and athletic, and caring.

Eva, who ran cross country and track and field, could make anyone smile. Her smile curls around the length of her face, while her shoulders shake up and down, reliving a joke’s punchline until she’s out of breath and everyone is laughing with her.

Ryan, who played football, lacrosse, golf and snowboarded, made everyone feel important by calling randomly just to say “hi” and check in. He went out of his way to introduce himself to strangers and get everyone involved.

“He’s just always looking on the bright side,” said Will Despres, Ryan’s football teammate at Pomperaug, adding that Ryan was probably the hardest working player on the team, always in the weight room. “Just being around him just lights up the whole room and will make your day just to see him. Just an amazing kid. Everybody loved him. There was no downside to him.”

Eva and Ryan first dated freshman year at Pomperaug, before becoming more serious in the fall of 2020 They were each other’s first serious relationship, building a foundation off a friendship that started in middle school.

“She would just have a big smile on her face, a little embarrassment giggle kinda thing. Her cheeks would get rosy because she was in love with him,” said Ally Southard, Eva’s friend from Nonnewaug High School. “You could just tell she wanted to be with him.”

The two spent evenings star gazing at a local airport, watching movies while cuddling on the couch with the family dog, Millie, or with friends at the Southbury Plaza, hanging out while eating McDonald’s, as teenagers do.

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge celebrating Valentine's Day 2021. The couple celebrated their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021.

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge celebrating Valentine’s Day 2021. The couple celebrated their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021.


Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gower

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge decorating Easter eggs in early April 2021. The couple celebrated their sixth-month anniversary on April 5.

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge decorating Easter eggs in early April 2021. The couple celebrated their sixth-month anniversary on April 5.


Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan


Left: Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge celebrating Valentine’s Day 2021. | Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge decorating Easter eggs in early April 2021. The couple celebrated their sixth-month anniversary on April 5. | Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Gower, Jerry Houlihan

“They were, like, inseparable, like her ride home would be Ryan and her ride to school,” said Ava Messna, Eva’s friend and a senior at Pomperaug. “They’d always find time to be with each other. They’d always be texting, Facetiming, sometimes even when Eva would tell me to come to her house to hang out. I’d get there and Ryan would still be there. They were always together.”

The crash

Monday, April 5, was Eva and Ryan’s sixth-month anniversary. To celebrate the occasion, they had a movie night at Eva’s mom’s condo in Woodbury.

It was around 8 or 8:30 p.m. that Elizabeth Gower, Eva’s mom, got home, she told police. The teenagers were thinking about dessert and Eva was set on getting a McFlurry from McDonald’s. Gower offered them a homemade brownie dessert one of her friends had brought over during the weekend for Easter, but the teenagers had already made up their mind on going to McDonald’s. Ryan promised Elizabeth he’d have some of the brownies as soon they got back.

He left with Eva in his white Jeep Wrangler and headed toward the McDonald’s in Southbury Plaza.

“It was a pretty devastating scene… Luckily, we were where we were because if we weren’t, they probably wouldn’t have been found until the next day.” Charles Burke, who was driving behind the teens and helped at the scene.

Investigating officers used security camera footage to piece together what happened between the vehicle entering the plaza at about 8:42 p.m. and when the Jeep leaves the parking lot at about 10:30 p.m., according to a 455-page investigative report compiled by state police.

The teens can be seen getting in and out of the car, changing seats and even parking spaces, the police report states. It wasn’t until 10:10 p.m. that Ryan walked into McDonald’s, leaving briefly, and returning to order. Eva would meet him inside minutes later, and the couple would take their 20-piece chicken McNuggets – always part of his order, according to Ryan’s twin brother Pat – fries and a Sprite, but no McFlurry.

It was about this time that Ryan texted his mom a picture of Pomperaug’s lacrosse roster, she told police. The coach had announced who made the varsity team earlier in the evening: Ryan had made the cut. Valerie Rutledge told police she responded, congratulating her son. According to the police report, he texted back ‘yeah,’ before she responded with congratulatory emojis.

“This text from Ryan at 10:20PM was the last time I heard from him,” she told police in a statement.

Ryan’s parents, Valerie and Anthony, declined to comment for this story.

Ryan and Eva left the Plaza around 10:30 p.m., according to the surveillance video reviewed by police.

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge were each others' first serious relationship. They couple first dated freshman year at Pomperaug but got back together junior year. They were celebrating their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021.

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge were each others’ first serious relationship. They couple first dated freshman year at Pomperaug but got back together junior year. They were celebrating their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021.


Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gower

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge were each others' first serious relationship. They couple first dated freshman year at Pomperaug but got back together junior year. They were celebrating their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021.

Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge were each others’ first serious relationship. They couple first dated freshman year at Pomperaug but got back together junior year. They were celebrating their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021.


Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gower


Eva Houlihan and Ryan Rutledge were each others’ first serious relationship. They couple first dated freshman year at Pomperaug but got back together junior year. They were celebrating their sixth-month anniversary on April 5, 2021. | Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gower

Driving behind Ryan’s Jeep, was Charles Burke, his wife Jamie and her 20-year-old son Ryan Cleary. Charles Burke would tell police the Jeep “didn’t appear to be speeding and it appeared to stay in its lane” while the family drove at a distance behind Ryan and Eva.

“As soon as I got to the bottom of the hill by the church, the Jeep was right before the bridge,” Charles Burke said to police, referring to Christ The Redeemer Church and the nearby George Bennett Park.

“I saw the Jeep got (sic) through the guardrail and I saw the rear lights of the Jeep disappear,” he continued. “I did not see any brake lights from the Jeep from the time I saw the Jeep gradually veer to the right up to the time the lights disappeared.”

The white Jeep Wrangler crashed through the small wood pillars and wire rope-like guardrail, before going airborne over the bridge’s cement wing walls. According to the police report, the Jeep landed on its roof after an approximate 20-foot fall before rolling over right side up, facing downstream on an embankment of the Pomperaug River. Both teenagers were ejected from the vehicle; police determined they weren’t wearing seat belts.

Charles, a Southbury firefighter, immediately pulled over when he saw the Jeep veer off the road. He grabbed a flashlight from his car to search the scene with his stepson while Jamie called 911. Charles was quickly able to locate both Eva and Ryan.

He waded into the water, about waist deep he remembers, and turned both teenagers onto their backs as they were faced down in the water when he found them. Both were barely breathing.

“It was a pretty devastating scene,” Charles said.

Charles, along with help from his stepson, a police officer and a third witness who happened to be in the nearby park, brought Eva to shore.

According to the police report, the first officer to arrive on scene helped keep Ryan’s head above the water. Ryan took his final breaths in his arms.

A final police report determined the 17-year-old was driving the Jeep at the time of the crash and the cause was that he “failed to drive right within the westbound lane” of the road. Police added that Ryan was under the influence of alcohol with a blood alcohol content level of 0.105, contributing to the cause. People under the age of 21 are deemed legally intoxicated in Connecticut if they have a BAC over 0.02 or higher and adults are 0.08 or higher. The substance analysis done by police also indicated traces of Fluoxetine and Norfluoxetine, which he was prescribed for anxiety family members told police.

It wasn’t raining the night of the crash, according to the report. There wasn’t any traffic on the road and from the Jeep’s data and the perspective of the Burkes driving behind Ryan, he wasn’t driving erratically. A crash report analysis shows the vehicle was traveling at about 48 mph on the straightaway just before the crash.

It’s unclear when and where Rutledge might have been drinking. A “large empty glass Fireball Cinnamon Whisky container” was found at the scene of the crash, the police report stated. When asked about the investigation of where the alcohol could have come from and whether they were investigating further, police said all releasable information from the accident had been included in the report.

After helping police once emergency crews arrived at the scene, the Burkes left and drove the rest of their way home in silence.

“Luckily, we were where we were because if we weren’t, they probably wouldn’t have been found until the next day,” Charles Burke said. “Maybe somebody going down to the river fishing would have found them because you couldn’t see them from the road. You couldn’t see their lights. You couldn’t see anything that [showed] an accident actually happened.”

Eva was barely breathing when paramedics got to her. They put her in an ambulance and sent her to the Waterbury Hospital emergency room.

After initial X-rays and CT scans showed severe brain trauma, she was flown by helicopter to Yale New Haven Hospital.

Elizabeth began calling friends and family. It was the early hours of Tuesday morning, so some answered while others awoke to frantic voicemails.

Jerry Houlihan, Eva’s dad, and Elizabeth got to the emergency room where they were ushered doctor to doctor with updates on their daughter’s injuries. Aside from a few small scratches on her face and a hairline fracture on her hip, the main concern was Eva’s brain.

Eva Houlihan with her dad, Jerry Houlihan, at a recent brunch. Houlihan sometimes wears a wig as her hair is still growing back from the accident.

Eva Houlihan with her dad, Jerry Houlihan, at a recent brunch. Houlihan sometimes wears a wig as her hair is still growing back from the accident.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan

She was given an emergency craniotomy surgery two days after the accident. X-Rays showed the left side of her brain was swelling, so doctors removed the left portion of her skull to give her brain room to breathe and eventually depress.

The left side of her head stayed swollen for weeks after the surgery. Eva remained in a coma for a few days before being heavily medicated and in and out of sleep for a couple weeks after. Doctors told Jerry and Elizabeth there was a chance she could never wake up and to brace themselves for the worst.

Jerry stormed out of the hospital. He returned home and thought about breaking his 33-year sobriety.

“It was scary because it looked like she was dead. I mean they had all the stuff on her, but she didn’t look like she was even alive,” Jerry said. “I was in a dark place. If I had stayed there for a few more days, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Elizabeth started to pray.

A brother’s loss

While Eva’s fight for her life was just beginning, the Rutledges were experiencing a harrowing grief.

The night before the crash, Sunday, April 4, Ryan had joined his twin brother, Pat, and his girlfriend in watching American Idol in Pat’s room. The two brothers went to different schools: Ryan at Pomperaug and Pat at Canterbury School in New Milford. Per the police report, Pat, a minute older than Ryan, says that was the first time the two had watched TV together since they were kids.

“This is the last memory I have of my brother,” he told police.

The following night, sometime past 11 p.m., the twins’ mom, Valerie, began to worry. Ryan was always good about curfew, never breaking it and always letting her know when he was on his way or if he was running late.

She texted Ryan, but he didn’t respond. Pat texted his brother and sent another to a close friend to see if he knew where Ryan was.

Around 11:20 p.m. Valerie checked Ryan’s location on the Find My iPhone app, which records when and where a phone last connected to cell service. According to Pat, the map showed his last location at the Southbury Plaza, so she got in her car and drove the short distance.

Pat remembers being annoyed that his brother wasn’t answering. At around midnight, he got in his Jeep, also a Wrangler, and began driving to Elizabeth’s condo thinking maybe Ryan had fallen asleep.

As soon as he got to the bridge on Roxbury Road he saw the bright red and blue lights.

“I gotta get through here,” he initially thought.

One of the police officers recognized his car and signaled Pat to pull over. The Rutledges know a lot of the law enforcement in Southbury as Pat crosses their path often in motocross events and also while he worked at the Southbury fire station the previous year.

“Pat, get out of the car,” Pat remembers the officer telling him.

“I need to get through.”

Another officer who knew Pat approached the two along the road. His expression was unlike Pat had ever seen before.

“I knew something was wrong just because he’s (Ryan) not home and this whole road is blocked off and this is on the way to Eva’s house,” Pat said. “So, I just put it together. But I had a little hope left that he was just still at Eva’s house or something.”

The second officer told him what happened. There was a terrible accident, Eva was rushed to the hospital and Ryan hadn’t survived: ‘Ryan’s dead.’

Pat’s world stood still. He was floored with anger and emotion.

“What do you mean? No! No! No!” he remembers shouting back at the officer.

His body turned on his mind and he began wrestling with the officer in frustration and rage.

“I was just so mad. So mad,” he recalls. “I had so many emotions going, it was all just kind of like a blur.”

The officers told Pat to drive home and get his dad. They would call Valerie and escort her to the bridge.

It was Pat who went to collect Ryan’s belongings from the destroyed car days later.

The days that followed

Days after the crash, the bridge transformed into a vigil for Ryan. His aunt placed flower pots along the bottom of the railings while the railings themselves became covered with handwritten Sharpie inscriptions from those mourning. Items of Ryan’s along with objects that resembled his passions lined the sidewalk. A Pomperaug football shirt hung on the street post in front of the bridge, while a small toy tractor, a nod to his work at Iron Bell Farms, was placed along the railing.

On a desk in a spare room of the Rutledge’s house, Ryan’s phone lights up with a new notification, sometimes a call, sometimes a text, of those remembering him, begging to know it’s all a mistake. The Rutledge family refused to take Ryan’s phone off the charger it’s plugged into. It has water damage from the crash, so sound comes out the speakers muffled, but it’s too important to let it run out of battery.

“I feel like this whole year is going to be hard because there are so many things I haven’t ever done without him and I’ll never get to do with him again, but it just makes me stronger I guess,” Pat said. “I’ve learned a lot through all this. So, I’m trying to take good things out of it. I have to because I’m so young, I have so much life left.”

When members of the Southbury and Pomperaug communities first found out about the accident, some immediately went into shock, skipping school the next day to process not knowing the status of their friends they had seen in person days, if not hours, before the crash.

Many of them lined the street leading into Sacred Heart Church during Ryan’s wake. Pat heard some waited over four hours to get in with over 4,000 people attending the service. They ran out of obituary cards and had to keep printing more.

A candlelight vigil was held at the Southbury Green in Ryan and Eva’s memory the week of the accident. One by one, people stood in front of the crowd of a few thousand and shared their favorite memories of Ryan and how much they wanted Eva to pull through.

Some began to avoid driving down Roxbury Road. They couldn’t let themselves think about what happened. Those who did drive over the bridge became hyper-aware. They turned off the radio for complete silence and drove below the speed limit.

Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.

Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.

Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.

Memorials for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.

Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media


Halloween decorations with notes for Ryan Rutledge are set out on the Rt. 67 bridge over the Pomperaug River, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, a Pomperaug High School student and athlete, was killed in an automobile accident at the bridge in April. | Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Because of COVID-19, Ryan’s funeral was held both in-person and streamed live virtually. Quassy Amusement & Waterpark offered to show the live stream. A couple thousand people tuned in, while 249 attended in person.

Jerry Houlihan took Charles and Jamie Burke, who had found his daughter in the river, out to lunch a week after the accident. He wanted to meet the people who had saved his daughter and thank them in person.

Within days of the accident, a GoFundMe page was set up for Eva’s hospital bills for her recovery. The page’s initial goal was $10,000. As of October 2021, it’s raised over $100,000.

“People just saw how much a loss of someone can change a whole town,” Pat Rutledge said. “Ryan was always like the popular, outgoing, sports kid like no one would have ever thought he was gonna die. The most unexpected happened and that just opened everyone’s eyes to live a better life and be a better person.”

Pat would drive to the bridge on Roxbury Road every day following the crash. It’s the place his brother spent his last minutes. After parking his dad’s truck, which he now drives instead of his Jeep, Pat walks up to the bridge’s cement sidewalk and waters the flowerpots placed along the bridge. Pat sold his own Jeep, having difficulty looking at it because it reminded him of his brother.

On this particular day in June, birds were chirping in the background while he took a moment to gaze out over the bridge.

“In the beginning I hated it, but I felt like this is like the last place he took his last breath, so I feel like a big part of him is here and a huge part of him,” Pat said. “It’s just peaceful. Like it’s either this or sit in his room and I’d rather be out.”

While the community mourned Ryan, about a week after the accident, Elizabeth found herself restless trying to sleep at the Ronald McDonald House in New Haven. She had trouble sleeping most nights, but this night it was different. She sat up in bed and looked at the memorial she had created in Ryan’s memory. Pictures of him with Eva were framed and surrounded by candles. She began to feel his presence sitting there with her.

“I really felt Ryan there,” Elizabeth recalls. “I didn’t hear anything, but I just had these thoughts come to my head of ‘Bring over that prayer shawl now. Bring it to Eva, she needs it.’”

Elizabeth had given Ryan the turquoise prayer shawl earlier that year to comfort Eva. It was just recently that Eva had started to have panic attacks, her parents said. It was found in Ryan’s car after the accident and had made its way back to Elizabeth.

She brought the shawl to Eva’s room in the hospital that night and draped it on Eva’s lap. The minute the shawl’s knitted fabric touched Eva, the teenager began to move her arm. It was the first time Elizabeth had seen her daughter move since before the accident.

Elizabeth Gower and her daughter Eva Houlihan.

Elizabeth Gower and her daughter Eva Houlihan.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gower

“I have one focus and that’s my daughter. I’m going to make sure she’s walking again. She’s gonna be singing in the shower again. She wants to run again, whatever it is she’s gonna have something important to do in this life,” Elizabeth said. “I’m so grateful that God is giving me a second chance to have my baby girl.”

Starting over

About two weeks after waking up from the coma, Eva was transported to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford to begin intensive rehabilitation to work on gaining her strength back. Since the left side of the brain is responsible for the right side of the body, Eva was unable to move her right limbs for weeks.

Doctors had no expectations for how Eva would recover, her parents said. With brain injuries being so unique to each individual and each injury, any sign of her coming back to her normal self was positive.

“There was a point where we were listening to one doctor, and it seemed like she wasn’t going to recover at all. That maybe she’d come out of a coma, but there was going to be no speech, there was going to be no recognizable ambulatory movements. She could have been blind too,” Jerry Houlihan, Eva’s father, said, fearing that his daughter may not come out of a coma. Somebody called me and said, ‘She’s up, her eyes are moving.”

Jerry cried the first time he saw Eva move her left leg.

A silver lining to Eva’s injury is she is left-handed, which she had better control of during her recovery. Even so, months after the crash, when asked to move her right arm she would hesitate. Sometimes she would cheat, using her left hand to slowly lift her right wrist. It wasn’t until five months into her recovery that she could open her right hand with all her fingers stretched out.

Eva spent the summer of 2021 at Gaylord, which focuses on recovery and rehabilitation, learning how to walk again. How to brush her teeth and how to wash her hair on her own again. She turned 17 in July surrounded by family and friends outside under one of the hospital’s gazebos.

Eva Houlihan celebrated her 17th birthday July 30 outside of Gaylord Hospital surrounded by family and friends.

Eva Houlihan celebrated her 17th birthday July 30 outside of Gaylord Hospital surrounded by family and friends.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan

Her meals were pre-cut and fed to her by her parents. Free time was spent propped up in a hospital bed or wheelchair watching movies and TV – anything to distract her from all the pain, all the grief.

Eva’s days were broken up by various therapy appointments.

She’d start with speech therapy where nurses walked her through breath control exercises along with relearning how to enunciate words. Her homework was reading out loud Dr. Seuss books and doing fill-in-the-blank tests on an iPad.

In occupational therapy, she sat through the tedious moments of relearning life’s most simple movements: like how to hold the toothbrush just right to be able to bring it up and down and side to side. She learned how to wash her hair again and how to shovel food onto a fork and slowly bring it to her mouth.

She sat in both individual and group physical therapy sessions where she gained arm strength by rolling and catching a ball and challenging nurses to arm wrestles. She’d hold onto nurses’ arms with a tight grip each time she practiced standing up with her own strength. Each movement is slow and steady, but focused and determined.

“She’s a miracle. My daughter is a miracle,” Elizabeth Gower, Eva’s mom, says.

Elizabeth Gower helps her daughter Eva Houlihan with her dinner at Gaylord Hospital/Specialty Healthcare, in Wallingford, Conn. Sept. 24, 2021. Eva is recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Elizabeth Gower helps her daughter Eva Houlihan with her dinner at Gaylord Hospital/Specialty Healthcare, in Wallingford, Conn. Sept. 24, 2021. Eva is recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Elizabeth spent 12 hours a day at the hospital in the early days of recovery, constantly by her daughter’s side.

Every night Elizabeth gave Eva a facial to keep her face clean and smooth. As the face cream would sit, Elizabeth would move to the end of the bed and rub her daughter’s feet to prevent any locked muscles, telling Eva to “step on the gas” to get her feet moving. The two escaped reality during the evenings by watching “Friends” on the hospital’s TV.

If needed, Elizabeth would take the time to spread Nair on her daughter’s legs. Another small thing she could do to take care of her daughter.

Before driving home to Woodbury to sleep, Elizabeth put on meditation music for Eva and turned off all the lights before closing the door to her daughter’s hospital room. In the morning, when she would return, Eva would greet her with a smile.

‘I’m so happy to see you. I missed you so much,’ Eva would whisper.

“I can’t tell you what that does to me. My daughter is talking to me,” Elizabeth says. “My daughter, every day it’s like what else is Eva gonna do. Eva is full of surprises. She surprised all of these doctors that were so grim and told us it was never gonna work.”

Eva Houlihan sits with her parents, Jerry Houlihan and Elizabeth Gower, during an interview at Gaylord Hospital/Specialty Healthcare, in Wallingford, Conn. Sept. 24, 2021. Eva is recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Eva Houlihan sits with her parents, Jerry Houlihan and Elizabeth Gower, during an interview at Gaylord Hospital/Specialty Healthcare, in Wallingford, Conn. Sept. 24, 2021. Eva is recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

In August, doctors at Yale New Haven Hospital performed the second part of Eva’s craniotomy and placed a titanium replica of the left portion of her skull back in place of the bone for better strength. A thin scar runs a few inches long on the left side of Eva’s head.

“They (the doctors) always tell you, ‘We’ve seen great things happen,’ the fact that she’s young and an athlete is a big plus because athletes usually have a fighting spirit in them,” Jerry said. “She’s going to fight through this until she has full recovery. Is she going to be running track again, I’m not gonna rule it out. I don’t know. But I think she’s gonna have a full, purposeful life and I think whatever empathy or insight she had before, it’s gonna be more now.”

During one of Eva’s last weeks at Gaylord outside under a gazebo, Elizabeth told her daughter how proud she was of her.

“You’re a miracle, Eva,” Elizabeth said. “You are a hero. You truly truly are. You’re a hero to me, you’re a hero to so many people in Southbury. You’re a very strong, beautiful, smart, talented. Man, you are a badass. Very strong badass. The things you can do. I’m really proud of you.”

Her daughter smiled before slowly stretching her left arm out and giving her mom a fist bump.

“Thank you,” Eva whispered.

“For what?” her mom responded, gazing at Eva.

“For you saying I’m a badass.”

Eva Houlihan sits with her parents, Jerry Houlihan and Elizabeth Gower, at Gaylord Hospital/Specialty Healthcare, in Wallingford, Conn. Sept. 24, 2021. Eva is recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Eva Houlihan sits with her parents, Jerry Houlihan and Elizabeth Gower, at Gaylord Hospital/Specialty Healthcare, in Wallingford, Conn. Sept. 24, 2021. Eva is recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Eva’s memory remained an issue throughout her recovery. She didn’t always recognize her father, having to be reminded of who he was. She would remember faces through pictures and FaceTime, but needed help remembering who came to visit last week or what she ate for breakfast, relying on her mom to fill in the missing pieces.

It was as if every other night Elizabeth had to relive the accident explaining to Eva why her high school boyfriend wasn’t visiting her at the hospital. The words never got easier.

Slowly, Elizabeth showed Eva pictures of her and Ryan. Pictures of the couple standing side by side, holding each other and smiling into the camera. Sometimes Eva would smile at the pictures and other times she’d get sad, unable to express what was causing her pain.

“I’ve never heard her cry like that for a long time, so she knew. And it was devastating,” Elizabeth said. “You don’t ever want to see your child in that kind of pain.”

Nothing could cure her daughter’s broken heart. So, Elizabeth did the one thing she thought she’d never do. She reached out to the person who was suffering even more and asked for help: Valerie Rutledge, Ryan’s mom.

“I look at her, she lost her son. She lost the most beautiful boy ever,” Elizabeth says before catching her breath and crying. “She will never see him again…They’re very good people and I just feel so fortunate my daughter got to fall in love with such a great young man.”

The Rutledges visited Eva regularly at Gaylord and continually supported Elizabeth and Jerry through their presence and prayers. They gifted Eva with a stuffed bear sprayed with Ryan’s cologne along with a comfy recliner as a welcome home present when she was discharged in October.

Eva Houlihan during a recent physical therapy session. Houlihan continues to learn how to gain her strength back after the accident last April.

Eva Houlihan during a recent physical therapy session. Houlihan continues to learn how to gain her strength back after the accident last April.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Gower

“How much they love my daughter in the midst of their own pain, you don’t hear that every day, and that’s beautiful. To me, I see why Ryan was the way he was,” says Elizabeth. “That’s every mother’s dream.”

“Ryan is by her (Eva’s) side,” said Ryan’s twin brother, Pat. “Ryan is definitely there and he’s definitely putting in everything he has.”

A community’s support

As the Rutledge’s mourned and Elizabeth and Jerry worked to build their daughter’s health back up, the community came together.

Just weeks after the crash, the Pomperaug and Newtown track and field teams faced off. After the meet, Eva’s former teammates ran a tribute relay to honor her with each of the eight girls running 100 meters. Rather than passing a baton, they passed an iPhone, recording a video message to Eva during each of their sprints.

“When I got the baton, or the phone, the emotions just really rushed over me,” said Ally McCarthy, who ran the last leg of the tribute relay and is one of Eva’s Nutmeg Striders teammates. “Just hearing the crowd cheer was unlike any other cheering that I’ve ever experienced from any race. To know that that was all for Eva, I think that’s going to be so special for her to look back at and to be able to see all the people that were praying for her and thinking of her throughout her whole journey.”

Eight girls ran a track tribute relay to honor Eva Houlihan during Newtown High School's track and field meet at Pomperaug last spring. From left to right: Ally McCarthy, Eva Barricelli, Ava Sednesky, Elise Barricelli, Sophia Guevara, Charlotte Brehmer, Lilly Steenburgh and Alissa Hurd.

Eight girls ran a track tribute relay to honor Eva Houlihan during Newtown High School’s track and field meet at Pomperaug last spring. From left to right: Ally McCarthy, Eva Barricelli, Ava Sednesky, Elise Barricelli, Sophia Guevara, Charlotte Brehmer, Lilly Steenburgh and Alissa Hurd.

Photo courtesy of Ally McCarthy

A week or so later Doug Houlihan, Eva’s older brother, showed Eva the video. She smiled underneath tears watching. Unable to communicate at the time, it wasn’t clear if she recognized the girls in the video, some being some of her longtime best friends and teammates, but that didn’t matter.

In August, Brooke Sullivan and Nhuja Shrestha, two of Eva’s longtime friends and current seniors at Pomperaug, hosted a fundraiser at the Pomperaug track where participants could donate $1 for every lap they completed. The two worked with Eva’s friends and parents in creating posters, customized T-shirts and bracelets. A local restaurant even donated snacks.

High schoolers, Pomperaug teachers and parents showed up to the fundraiser and spent hours walking, running, and pushing strollers around the track. Over $4,000 was raised to help Elizabeth and Jerry with the costs of Eva’s recovery.

“She’s one of my best friends,” Sullivan said. “Obviously her medical bills are very expensive, so just supporting her throughout her recovery and her family is just something small that we can do to make it a little bit easier.”

“This is the best little community. I can’t say enough,” Elizabeth Gower said. “Because of all of this, this tragedy, it brought the lives of all of us together. All the pettiness is gone, and it’s just, ‘Let’s heal together, love each other and be understanding.’ And the moms, everybody identified and everybody just pitched in.”

Pomperaug’s boys’ varsity lacrosse team dedicated their 2021 season opener at New Milford to Ryan. Playing in front of Ryan’s parents, the team gave them the game ball. Valerie and Anthony Rutledge went to every one of the team’s games that season.

“When the bleachers looked slim, you always heard Anthony cheering everyone on,” said Steve Malusa, Pomperaug’s head boys’ lacrosse coach.

The team tied one of Ryan’s old headbands to a goalpost for every home game and later had it framed for the Rutledges.

Members of the Pomperaug varsity football team carried Ryan’s obituary card in their pockets. Ryan’s photo is on one side and a bible verse on the other. The team dedicated the 2021 season to Ryan and hand-delivered a signed football to Eva when she was at Gaylord.

Patrick Rutledge, right, Ryan Rutledge’s twin brother walks with members of the Pomperaug High School football as they approach for the coin toss before a game against Bunnell High School, in in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Ryan Rutledge, who was a member of the Pomperaug football team, was killed in an automobile accident in April.

Patrick Rutledge, right, Ryan Rutledge’s twin brother walks with members of the Pomperaug High School football as they approach for the coin toss before a game against Bunnell High School, in in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Ryan Rutledge, who was a member of the Pomperaug football team, was killed in an automobile accident in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Pomperaug High School football helmets bear Ryan Rutledge’s initials, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021.

Pomperaug High School football helmets bear Ryan Rutledge’s initials, in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

The iron bell with Ryan Rutledge’s No. 46 was dedicated before the Pomperaug High School football game in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021.

The iron bell with Ryan Rutledge’s No. 46 was dedicated before the Pomperaug High School football game in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Ryan Rutledge’s parents, Valeria and Anthony, applaud while members of the Pomperaug High School football team are introduced prior to a game in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, who was a member of the Pomperaug football team, was killed in an automobile accident in April.

Ryan Rutledge’s parents, Valeria and Anthony, applaud while members of the Pomperaug High School football team are introduced prior to a game in Southbury, Conn. Sept. 17, 2021. Rutledge, who was a member of the Pomperaug football team, was killed in an automobile accident in April.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media


Pomperaug Football honored Ryan Rutledge during its 2021 season home opener. The team all signed a helmet and rang an iron bell during every successive drive as a nod to Rutledge’s work at Iron Bell Farms. His parents, Anthony and Valerie, attended the game. | Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

At the Panthers’ home opener on Sept. 17, the team made Valerie, Anthony and Pat honorary captains. An iron bell was positioned on the sideline at every game as a nod to Ryan’s work at Iron Bell Farms. It’s rung after every successful drive. Dave Evans, Ryan’s best friend, would run out onto the field before every game clinching Ryan’s jersey in his fist.

“They wanted to remember Ryan through hard work in preparing for the season because that’s what Ryan did,” said Tony Pereira, Pomperaug’s varsity football head coach. “The big positives that I’ve been relaying is look at how our community came together, look at how our school came together. Then the biggest thing, I told our kids, I am proud of them because the character that our kids showed throughout that whole process means more to me than any touchdown or interception or tackle they’re going to make this year.”

A new normal

It was six months to the day from the accident on October 5, 2021, that Eva returned home to Elizabeth’s condo in Woodbury. Back to her own bed, her own house, back to the comfort of her own blankets and clothes. Back to her normal, yet still far from it.

Elizabeth and some of the family’s friends transformed her living room on the first floor to a bedroom for Eva, since she’s still wheelchair-bound and can’t climb the stairs that lead to her old bedroom on the second floor.

On one side of the renovated room is a hospital bed, covered in Eva’s blankets and stuffed animals. Pictures line the wall next to the bed, some with Ryan’s face smiling back at the camera.

“She’s always going to miss him,” Elizabeth Gower, Eva’s mom, said. “He’s a part of her. It’s not easy. It’s up and down but most of it she’s a very strong girl and we believe that Ryan is still with her, giving her good energy.”

The comfy chair the Rutledges got Eva sits opposite her bed on the other side of the room facing the TV. There’s a new coffee table that can extend and raise its surface to chest level for when Eva needs to sit up.

Above the couch against the back wall of the room is a framed black and white photo of the cast of “Friends,” Eva’s favorite show.

The built-in bookshelves by the fireplace are now filled with boxes of Eva’s clothes with a folding room divider standing nearby for privacy. Eva has access to the kitchen, the first-floor bathroom and the balcony which is decorated by a large banner that says “Welcome home Eva” signed by the kids at her youth group.

Eva Houlihan meets with her friends, Ava Messina and Nhuja Shrestha on Eva’s first night back home in Woodbury, Conn. Oct. 5, 2021. Eva has been in the hospital recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Eva Houlihan meets with her friends, Ava Messina and Nhuja Shrestha on Eva’s first night back home in Woodbury, Conn. Oct. 5, 2021. Eva has been in the hospital recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

Eva Houlihan gets a kiss from her mother, Elizabeth Gower, on Eva’s first night back home in Woodbury, Conn. Oct. 5, 2021. Eva has been in the hospital recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.

Eva Houlihan gets a kiss from her mother, Elizabeth Gower, on Eva’s first night back home in Woodbury, Conn. Oct. 5, 2021. Eva has been in the hospital recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead.


Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media


Left: Eva Houlihan meets with her friends, Ava Messina and Nhuja Shrestha on Eva’s first night back home in Woodbury, Conn. Oct. 5, 2021. | Right: Eva Houlihan gets a kiss from her mother, Elizabeth Gower, on Eva’s first night back home in Woodbury, Conn. Oct. 5, 2021. Eva has been in the hospital recovering from a car accident in Southbury last April that left her boyfriend dead. | Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

On Eva’s best days she can brush her own teeth with an electric toothbrush (Elizabeth helps her unscrew the toothpaste and put it on the brush), put on her own makeup and can transfer herself in and out of her wheelchair and onto a couch or chair.

Eva spent two nights downstairs in the hospital bed before asking to go upstairs and be with her mom at night. The two have worked together to figure out a system in helping the 17-year-old manage the stairs. Without using her legs, Eva will sit down and balance her weight between herself and Elizabeth as they take each step slowly. Elizabeth says it’s given her daughter confidence.

She can crack jokes, usually small sarcastic one-word responses, and spill into laughing fits that get everyone in the room laughing with her.

While conversations with Eva are simple and sometimes slow, she still laughs often and smiles with her big blue eyes that light up the room. She doesn’t show fear in knowing her life remains far from what it was.

Eva Houlihan before the accident. Houlihan has a contagious laugh and had a passion for competing in short sprints in track and field.

Eva Houlihan before the accident. Houlihan has a contagious laugh and had a passion for competing in short sprints in track and field.


Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan

Eva Houlihan before the accident. Houlihan has a contagious laugh and had a passion for competing in short sprints in track and field.

Eva Houlihan before the accident. Houlihan has a contagious laugh and had a passion for competing in short sprints in track and field.


Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan


Eva Houlihan before the crash. | Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan

“Watching her slowly become the person that she was again is just so amazing to see,” said Brooke Sullivan, Eva’s friend and current senior at Pomperaug. “We all knew that she was going to be strong and be able to fight through this. But at the rate that she is doing it is absolutely incredible.”

During the fall, Pomperaug teachers came to Elizabeth’s condo to tutor and help Eva in person with the schoolwork she missed last spring.

On November 24, Pomperaug football honored Ryan during the team’s senior night celebration. Valerie, Anthony and Pat were in attendance while a poster of Ryan in his football jersey was tied to the fence along with ones of the other seniors.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.


Photo courtesy of Maggie Vanoni

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.


Photo courtesy of Maggie Vanoni

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.


Photo courtesy of Maggie Vanoni

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.


Photo courtesy of Maggie Vanoni


Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff. | Maggie Vanoni / Hearst Connecticut Media

The team honored Eva with a pre-game ceremony on the field. In front of a packed home crowd, including Eva and her family, the football program presented Gaylord Specialty Healthcare with a donation of $2,000.

“Eva has provided our community with the link from a tragic situation to hope and recovery,” the PA announcer said through the football bleacher’s press box speakers. “We want to take a moment to thank every therapist, doctor, social worker, family member and friend for supporting Eva through her journey so that we are all able to celebrate her tonight.”

Before the announcer could finish his speech, Eva grabbed hold of her dad’s arm to the left of her wheelchair. Jerry Houlihan lifted Eva’s arm, while Elizabeth Gower held on to Eva’s right arm. The three of them moved as one as Eva pushed off from her legs and stood. Her parents raised both her arms as the crowd cheered loudly.

Moments later, surrounded by her family and Ryan’s, Eva rang the Iron Bell to signify kickoff. Elizabeth and Jerry stood next to their daughter helping her reach for the bell, while the Rutledges stood on the other side cheering her on.

“I realized, you know, it could have been any of our kids. Any of us. The Rutledges are great parents. I know that for a fact,” Elizabeth said. “Yes, I was angry with him. Disappointed in him after. I was shocked a little bit. But he was a beautiful young man still, he would have probably been a wonderful man. He made a mistake and unfortunately it had a big consequence and it hurt my daughter too.

“There was a lot of feelings but at the end of the day, we’re still here and we support the Rutledges and we’re gonna get through this together. What else can I say? We’re gonna still miss him. We still love him. He made a mistake.”

On Jan. 23, she began her senior year in person at Pomperaug surrounded by her friends. Elizabeth and Jerry say she’s on track to graduate with her class in June.

“(I’m) absolutely loving it,” Eva said over the phone in February when asked how her transition back to school. She laughed before adding, “I don’t think most kids would say that.”

Eva Houlihan survived the single-car crash on April 5, 2021. The 17-year-old is on track to graduate this spring from Pomperaug High School.

Eva Houlihan survived the single-car crash on April 5, 2021. The 17-year-old is on track to graduate this spring from Pomperaug High School.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Houlihan

While she’s still the same Eva, her life isn’t what it used to be. She needs help standing up for long periods of time and can’t walk without assistance. She doesn’t remember the accident on Roxbury Road on April 5, 2021, but she remembers her boyfriend, Ryan Rutledge. She brings Ryan up a lot, Elizabeth says. In her art class, the 17-year-old draws pictures of him and of the two of them together.

“She’s always going to miss him,” Elizabeth said. “He’s a part of her. It’s not easy. It’s up and down but most of it she’s a very strong girl and we believe that Ryan is still with her, giving her good energy.”

Eva will need minor surgery in the early summer to help fix inward toning on her right foot caused by a tightened Achilles tendon. Doctors told Elizabeth they expect Eva’s brain to be 85% recovered by 2023.

The Southbury community was forever impacted by the crash on Roxbury Road. Those close to Eva and her family, have poured endless support into her recovery. Local families started a meal train and donated frozen meals to Elizabeth and Eva when she first returned home from the hospital. Some have anonymously donated money to help pay for her treatment. The owner of Sabrina’s Style in Sandy Hook donated a dress for Eva to wear to Pomperaug’s senior semi-formal dance.

Southbury also continues to mourn Ryan Rutledge. It always will. They will remember his dedication on the field, in the weight room, in every sport. But more than that, they’ll remember the way he made others feel loved and important.

“We’re moving forward in a positive way with love in our hearts,” Elizabeth said.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.

Pomperaug High School football honored both Ryan Rutledge and Eva Houlihan ahead of senior night in November. The Houlihan and Rutledge family were in attendance and rang an iron bell together to signify kickoff.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Vanoni