Haddam community mourns 18-year-old killed in Hammonasset State Park crash

Condolences and support continued to pour in Tuesday as the Haddam community struggled with the death of a recent high school graduate who was riding in an SUV that rolled over Saturday evening at Hammonasset State Park. 

Nicholas M. Proto, 18, of the Higganum section of town, had just graduated this month from Haddam Killingworth High school, local officials said. He was rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital after the crash, but died from his injuries. Three other passengers were also taken to the hospital.

Haddam First Selectwoman Lizz Milardo got a call from state police late Saturday night notifying her of the accident. She said the only thing to do is offer thoughts and prayers and help fellow graduates and students deal with the loss.

“It’s a tragedy,” she said. “It’s sad and we are heartbroken over it.”

A GoFundMe page created in the wake of the crash to pay for funeral expenses had quickly surpassed its $10,000 goal, raising nearly $24,000 by Tuesday evening.

“He was a hilarious and caring kid. Nick loved to watch basketball, and play basketball with his friends,” the page reads. “He was a son and a great friend to so many. We are hoping to come together as a community to help the family with funeral expenses.”

Environmental Conservation police were called the state park in Madison about 7:10 p.m. on Saturday on reports that an SUV had crashed just past the ticket booth in the the lanes leaving the area.

When they arrived, officers learned that two of the six people in the vehicle had been ejected. The driver and three passengers were taken to the hospital.

State officials have not released the names of the other individuals injured in the crash. A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said Tuesday that an EnCon police probe, assisted by a state police accident reconstruction squad, was ongoing. An initial report on the crash was not immediately available.

The rollover location is about a half-mile north of the West Beach/Middle Beach rotary. Visitors were stopping by the memorial late Tuesday afternoon which included flowers and a tile with a crab on it noting “Gone To The Beach.” The memorial included several photos of a smiling Proto.

Paul Evans of Higganum was shopping at Higganum Village Market Tuesday and said it’s a “scary day” when car keys are given to teens.

“You kind of just hope for the best,” he said. “But there are so many distractions these days. It’s not like when we were growing up.”

Signs of the recent graduation were peppered across town with a board on the green thanking those who donated to project graduation. Helium-filled balloons, weighed down by showers, slumped on mailboxes.

An obituary said that Proto “loved music, sang in the chorus in middle school and enjoyed fishing. Nicholas was a loving son, brother, grandson, nephew, cousin and devoted friend who always put others first.” He also played for the high school football team.

Ashley Betty, manager of Brookside Restaurant, hired Proto several months ago as a dishwasher. Food preparation was added to his duties and he became “the first dishwasher with a knife,” Betty said with sadness in her voice.

“He was such a good kid. He paid attention. He learned quickly. He would always have headphones in his ears and rapped songs when he thought no one was looking.

“It was great to have young people working here. It’s a big age difference, but we tried to teach them life lessons. He was smart.”

He was also a hero in Betty’s mind especially when a disgruntled customer argued with her about a bill and things became heated.

“He was the first one to come between me and the customer. He was a selfless kid,” she said.

Betty is hosting a private reception at the restaurant after the funeral Friday as “our way of helping out.” She met with Proto’s parents Monday who thanked her for giving him the job and “giving him an opportunity.”

“He was out with five friends having fun,” Betty said. “One mistake and now everyone’s life is completely destroyed. It’s very sad for all the families and all the kids involved. It’s one of those life lessons you hope kids learn from.”

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