A small Will County town shaken by the deaths of four teens who drowned when their car plunged off a rural bridge held a memorial service at the local high school Wednesday as police continued to piece together what led to the fatal accident.
At Wilmington High School, the student body rose unbidden as four candles were lit, one each for Micalah Sembach, 15, Cheyenne Fender, 17, Matthew Bailey, 14, and Cody Carter, 15. And a steady stream of young mourners made their way past a traffic barricade on rural Ballou Road, then slowly drove the few hundred yards to the bridge over Forked Creek where the teens lost their lives.
The muddy shoulder of the narrow, country road was rutted from the wheels of cars that had parked at the crash scene, where police say the 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse that Cheyenne had received as a 16th birthday present crashed through a guardrail and sank upside-down into the murky waters.
A school bus driver noticed one of the wheels sticking out of the creek Tuesday morning.
At the high school, a shortened school day Wednesday ended with an assembly in the gym. A local church was packed Tuesday night for a prayer service. At Forked Creek, a row of white crosses were staked along the southern edge of the concrete bridge where the guardrail was shorn off by the force of the impact.
Cheyenne, Cody, and Matthew all lived within a block of each other, and had been friends since they were little more than toddlers, Cheyenne's grandmother Pam Copley said Wednesday. Micalah lived less than a mile away.
Copley described her granddaughter as a responsible driver, and said the teen regularly drove to visit family in south suburban Homewood, about 40 miles away.
"She drove all the time, in all kinds of weather. There must have been something on the road that she didn't see," Copley said. "I never worried. I would let her drive and I would read my book. ... This was all a horrific accident. That's all it was."
While investigators consider the possibility that water on the road contributed to the crash, police said it will be weeks before an accident reconstruction team finishes its work. Toxicology reports alone will take four to six weeks, the Will County coroner's office said. Still undetermined is who was driving at the time of the crash.
"We have to put somebody behind that wheel," said Deputy Chief Ken Kaupas. Police will also subpoena cellphone records — another time-consuming process — and detectives were assigned to the case Wednesday, Kaupas said.
Jim Bailey, Matthew's father, said he was still making funeral arrangements for his son, but had told school officials and local police he believed more could be done to find the teens after they were reported missing Monday night.
"There has to be something, some kind of snitch line kids could call when they know something. The response time could have been a lot quicker," he said. "They didn't have to have sat in the bottom of the creek from probably 5 p.m. until the next morning."
Police, in the town of about 5,100, said they don't yet know when the crash happened.
Steven Jostes, 17, joined the search for the missing teens Monday night. A friend of Micalah's, the high school senior said he probably crossed the bridge a half-dozen times during nine hours and 300 miles of driving while searching the back roads around Wilmington in his truck.
"We looked all over," he said, standing a few feet from the crosses. "We were thinking they went in the ditch somewhere. We knew they were somewhere, they just couldn't be seen."
Principal Kevin Feeney said school attendance was surprisingly good Wednesday, which had been a scheduled half day. About half the students at school visited with crisis counselors who set up shop in the school library, and more visited to write on a "message wall" poster for each of the students, Feeney said.
Many parents called the school to make sure counseling would be available for grieving students; in a school with 460 students, everyone knew at least one of the victims. All four had been Wilmington High students, though Cheyenne left to be home-schooled.
"They were great kids, all of them," Feeney said. "You could tell they made an impact on the school."
Visitation will be at 3 p.m. Thursday for Matthew at the Freitag-Reeves & Baskerville Funeral Home in Wilmington. Micalah's services also are being handled by the funeral home, the coroner's office said, but no details were available Wednesday.
Visitations for Cody and Cheyenne are scheduled for Saturday. Carter's visitation will be held at R.W. Patterson Funeral Home in Braidwood from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Cheyenne's at Anderson Memorial Chapel in Romeoville from 3 to 7 p.m.