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California man sets up Web site for condolences

by Christy Chalmers

The man who runs virtual-condolences.com doesn’t want money or recognition.

He wants to collect kind words and share them with the world.

“If in some small way I can ease their pain just a little bit, then I think the site’s accomplished something,” said operator Brian Kornegay from his Ukiah, Calif. home. “I’m learning myself how to be a better person, because it shows me how many people there are out there that really care.”

The site lists the names of people who have died unexpectedly and tragically. A one- or two-line description of how the people died and names of their relatives accompanies a link to view condolences posted for them and to write one.

Krystal Steadman, the 9-year-old South Lake Tahoe girl whose body was found March 20 off Highway 50, a day after she disappeared from a Stateline apartment complex, is currently at the top of the list.

Others include Kayla Rolland, the Michigan first-grader who was shot by a classmate; Jake Robel, 6, who was dragged to death in a carjacking attempt and the four adults who died in a March 8 shootout in Memphis, Tenn.

The top of the page links to a memorial site for Heather Meredith Kornegay, Brian’s daughter. She died in March 1999 after an asthma attack. She was 20.

Kornegay, a captain with the California Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection, started the web site in April 1999 as a tribute to the Columbine High School shooting victims.

After noticing the site was overshadowed by the others dedicated to Columbine, Kornegay decided to focus on firefighters and their families. Now the site includes a variety of people who have come to Kornegay’s attention, either through requests from their relatives or from news accounts.

Kornegay said his efforts have been well-received, both by users and the families of those on the page. He says maintaining the files has helped him “tremendously” to cope with losing Heather.

“The families find this very comforting, just to look and see what everyone is posting,” he said. “When my daughter passed away, I wished I would have had something like that.”

Kornegay learned of Steadman’s death from a friend who suggested a memorial site for her. Since he began collecting comments, he said he’s heard from a woman who lives in Connecticut and is a cousin of Steadman.

As of Monday morning, 24 comments from all over the United States, plus one from Frankfurt, Germany and another from Ontario, Canada had been posted.

A Pat Madigan, who didn’t leave a state but lives somewhere in the U.S., wrote, “I lost my mother on Feb. 17. I know that she will look after Krystal for you.”

Most of the writers expressed regret and said they will be thinking of Steadman’s family.

Kornegay said he doesn’t edit the remarks, but wants to keep the writers focused on condolences.

“It’s not a place to point fingers and blame. That stuff can all come out later,” he said. “It’s just a place to honor the people that passed away.”

He said the number of visitors varies with media attention. In the days following the Memphis shootings, the site got 250-300 hits a day. Now 50 to 100 people check in, though they don’t all leave comments.

The site recently broke the 10,000-hit mark, but the counter has only been in place since November.

Tributes will stay up until a week passes with no new messages. Kornegay keeps records of everything posted and will provide a hard copy to anyone who asks, but he noted most people print their own copies.

He says he has never personally met any of the families, though many have written to thank him. Kornegay has thought about meeting the family of Eddie Lee Rogers Jr., 15, who died Jan. 30 when a freight train derailed and crashed into his Bloomington, Md. home. Eddie’s stepfather is a firefighter.

“At some point in my life, I would like to meet them. I think they were really touched by this,” said Kornegay.

What would he say to them?

“I don’t know. I would have to think about it, other than the fact that I understand their pain,” he said. “I know what they are going through. There’s nothing so painful in the world as losing a child.”