The man everyone came to see takes a seat in the front. His physical wounds have long since healed, and he seems relaxed as he greets old friends. But when the event gets underway—and photos of his beautiful wife and daughters flash on a screen—Dr. William Petit looks away, bites his lip, turns his program over and over in his hands. Giving his speech isn’t any easier. One 15-year-old student he presents an award to “reminds me of my youngest daughter, Michaela,” he tells the crowd at a June 3 “Petit Women” scholarship ceremony in Plainville, Conn. Another, he says, his voice cracking, “reminds me of Hayley, my oldest.” Somehow he makes it to the end of his talk. “They all died too soon,” he says.
One year ago this July 23, Petit suffered an unimaginable loss. Two men attacked his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and his daughters and beat Petit, leaving him for dead in the basement of their Cheshire, Conn., home. By the time police arrived on the scene, the suspects had set the house on fire and were fleeing. Jennifer was strangled to death while Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, died in the fire. The suspects confessed, police confirmed, but pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Since then, occasional vertigo is the only lasting physical reminder of Petit’s injuries, but the prominent diabetes expert still has not returned to work and is living with his parents in nearby Plainville, where he grew up. In May workers tore down his fire-damaged home and Petit, an avid gardener, had several bushes and shrubs he planted with his daughters removed and replanted at his parents’ home. Petit, 51, declined PEOPLE’s interview request and has only given brief statements to local media. When one reporter asked him how he was doing recently, Petit replied that physically he’s fine but “psychologically, I don’t know. Some days are okay and some days are terrible.”
In the meantime, something remarkable has happened in Cheshire and Plainville: Friends and complete strangers alike have rallied around Petit. Shortly after the tragedy, fellow members of the Farmington Country Club raised $77,000 in two days to pay for funeral expenses, says Ron Bucchi, 53, Petit’s closest friend. Since then, local support for Petit and his family’s causes has only grown. “It was very heartwarming that the community pulled together and did what it could,” Bucchi says.
Elizabeth Ollero, 12, for instance, started a Web site (www.forevermi chaela.com) to honor Michaela, her best friend. She and Dr. Petit e-mail each other, and he sometimes posts on her blog. “Dr. Petit’s making good out of bad,” Elizabeth says. “It makes me never want to give up.” Several charitable events have been held for the Petit Family Foundation (www.petit familyfoundation.org), which Bill created last year to continue the good works of his wife and daughters, who were active in many causes including multiple sclerosis research (Jennifer had MS). Bucchi says it “is for [Petit] a continuation of his speech right after the tragedy happened—help a neighbor, fight for a cause.” An intensely private man, Petit would probably like nothing more than to stay out of the public eye, but he’s determined to be at every event he can, no matter the personal toll. “It’s very overwhelming emotionally,” he told a local paper in May. “Usually I’m exhausted by the end, even if I just show up, shake a few hands and talk for a few minutes.”
This is the challenge for Bill Petit— to never forget his family but to find a way, somehow, to heal. He still wears his wedding ring, regularly attends church and stays close to his daughters’ friends, who have reached out to him throughout the year. “If he’s having a hard day, we e-mail or text him and tell him we’re with him and to be strong,” says Kathryn Thompson, 12. The support he has received, he has said, has been “the light” during the “dark, dark place” he’s been in since their deaths. “My faith has been severely challenged, and you may not know it, but you all have pulled me up and kept me afloat.”