Students

A bench for Wytze

We’ll never piss in the canals again

Eighteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to die. Nevertheless, Steven Gast and Joop Stolle suddenly lost their friend and roommate in 2016. Now they’re telling everyone who’s listening to take care of themselves, and each other.
By Thereza Langeler / Photo Reyer Boxem & archive Steven Gast / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Every once in a while you meet someone and you just hit it off. You may not even know why, but you can feel it: you guys just mesh. This is how the guys living at Pension Dieters, a Vindicat house in the north of the city, felt when first-year student Wytze came to stay with them during the KEI week.

‘He just fit right in’, Steven Gast, one of the occupants, remembers. ‘He was so upbeat and positive. I could definitely have lived with him for four years.’

In the end, they lived together for less than four months.

After a night out in October of 2016, eighteen-year-old Wytze Pennink failed to return home. He fell into the water near the Kijk in ‘t Jat bridge – no one really knows what happened exactly. Now, a little over eighteen months later, a special bench has been erected in his memory.

Picture

‘We got the idea for a commemorative bench almost immediately’, says Joop Stolle, another roommate. He, Steven, and Wytze’s brother Sjoerd arranged for the bench to be installed. ‘We thought there had to be something.’ The guys wanted to create something the bereaved could visit, a visible memorial at the place where Wytze died. Something that clearly said: take care of yourself, be careful.

So now there’s a bench. And what a bench it is: it’s remarkably wide, made of untreated wood. Embedded in the sidewalk is a tile with a picture on it, sort of like the ladybird that protests random acts of violence. This tile depicts a hand with the middle three fingers folded inward towards the palm, the thumb and pinky finger outstretched. It’s called the shaka sign, also known as ‘hang loose’.

The ambulances drove right past us, towards the bridge. That’s when we knew they’d found him

‘Hang loose, that’s what Wytze was all about’, says Joop. ‘Relaxed and laid back, but he always enjoyed life.’ Steven: ‘He used to make that sign with his hand like, all the time.’

New beginning

Groningen was a new beginning for Wytze, just like it is for many first-year students every year. ‘He was a little shy in the beginning, but he was truly starting to open up’, Joop recalls. Vindicate, new friends, great house, parties: it was all amazing and Wytze enjoyed it all.

When he wasn’t in his room one Friday morning in October, his roommates assumed he had stayed over at a friend’s house after spending a night out. This was something he sometimes did. They figured he would eventually turn up.

But morning turned into afternoon, and by the evening, Wytze still hadn’t appeared. ‘That’s when we started getting worried’, says Joop. Joop was at his parents’ house in Amsterdam, but immediately went back to Groningen. In the days following, he ceaselessly searched all the locations in the city where Wytze may have been, aided by hundreds of other Vindicat members and Groningen residents.

Haze

‘Those days went by in a haze’, says Joop. ‘It’s too awful to remember’, says Steven. The guys didn’t sleep, couldn’t bear to sit still. Doing nothing drove them crazy. That weekend, Pension Dieters served as a base of operations where Wytze’s family gathered, the search parties kept each other informed, and friends dropped off lasagne casseroles.

 
 
 
 
 

On Saturday, they even decided to deploy tracker dogs, because they felt the police wasn’t doing enough. On Sunday, the police started diving in the canal.

On Monday afternoon, Joop and Steven were having coffee at a little shop in the Oude Kijk in’t Jatstraat, because everyone needs a break every once in a while. ‘That’s when we heard the sirens’, says Joop. ‘The ambulances drove right past us, towards the bridge. That’s when we knew that they’d found him.’

It has been more than eighteen months since the ordeal, and this isn’t the first time they’ve talked about it. It’s become easier, almost routine. But they’ll never get truly used to the fact that it happened. ‘He was just so young. That’s the most bizarre part’, Joop summarises the guys’ feelings. ‘It never should have happened.’

People die

The guys were both struck by the senselessness of Wytze’s death, and they still are. Whenever they talked to people about what had happened or about death in general, they were often told: ‘That’s life. People die, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Bullshit, says Steven. ‘Of course you can do something about it.’

Steven doesn’t like doing nothing. According to him, he’s ‘addicted’ to being active. He doesn’t like lounging around; whenever he’s got time, he’ll find something to fix, to do, to make. So when his good friend and roommate suddenly died for no discernible reason, Steven decided to do something.

‘We wanted to create awareness’, he explains. ‘People should stick together when they go out.’ Together with his roommates, he became the ambassador of being careful. They composed a message to the new first-year students, which was included in the KEI week informational pamphlet: ‘Enjoy the things that student life has to offer, but take care of yourself, and of each other.’

Stick together

At Vindicat, they’ve also been busy promoting the ‘stick together’ policy, including during the introduction period. They are seeing its effect: many of their members now walk or bike home together after a night out.

‘And we never piss in the canals anymore’, says Joop.

‘I know that you can’t always prevent accidents’, Steven reluctantly admits. ‘But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.’

It’s a good thing that it’s so simple. That’s how Wytze was

Six months after Wytze’s accident, he e-mailed the municipality of Groningen. ‘I just used the standard contact form on their website, where they ask for your name, address, and your issue.’ In a short message, he explained that they would like to donate a bench to the municipality. Just a simple one, where Wytze’s friends and family could come together. A bench for students on their way to class. He sent the message, not expecting any results. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Mayor

The mayor of Groningen responded almost immediately. He thought it was a great idea and wanted to meet with them personally.

‘The people at the municipality were on board straight away’, says Joop. ‘We should really mention that the delays weren’t their fault.’ Instead, the blame lies with Aanpak Diepenring. The Lopendediep was being renovated, and so the bench couldn’t be placed just yet.

In the meantime, the guys got to work, together with civil servant Arda Klijnsma, who helped them out. The idea was that the guys would get the money for the bench, and the municipality was in charge of placing it.

To collect the funds needed, the guys launched the website 07102016.net. This was the date that Wytze died. Through the site, they sold art that they’d made themselves. Steven made drawings, in an Andy Warhol-inspired pop art style, in a range of colour. They all featured that sign that they’d seen Wytze make over and over again: hang loose.

Their hard work has finally paid. The remarkably wide bench, made from untreated wood, looks out over the water at the north side of the Lopendediep. Steven and Joop are happy.

‘It’s a good thing that it’s so simple’, says Steven. ‘That’s how Wytze was. Humble and sincere.’

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