Tragic Rite of Spring

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Seems like every spring, we run a story about a bunch of teenagers killed in a horrific car wreck.


The story below is one I wrote in the aftermath of just such a wreck. A bunch of high school students stopped by the site of a wreck that killed three of their friends and held a memorial service of sorts.

Fauquier Times-Democrat Friay, June 3, 2011

LHS students make roadside memorial

By Steve Campbell, Times-Democrat Staff Writer

Tire marks on the pavement point the way.

Bark’s off an ash tree.

Tokens of friendship, of remembrance, lie beneath the tree.

A black tie-dyed scarf hangs from a low branch. A hubcap leans against the tree trunk. A vase of red flowers, a potted red rose, a heart-shaped red balloon comprise a shrine of sorts, a goodbye from their friends, their best friends.

Three of them gone.

Nearby, a pile of debris remains, pieces of chrome, maroon interior upholstery, shattered glass.

Shattered lives. Three young lives ended.

On a blistering hot afternoon, Wednesday, pickup trucks, minivans and cars roll by, drivers slowing, passengers looking out the window.

Three former Liberty High School students died at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in a single-car crash on Bealeton Road about a mile or so from Liberty High School.

The driver of the 1986 Crown Victoria, Ausha M. Sterlitz, 20, of Bealeton, along with Calyssa Leigh Wickham, 20, of Sumerduck, and Michael Dominic Montessi, 16,of Midland, died here.

Two other passengers, Devon Alexander Sterlitz, 18, of Bealeton, and Jacob Moore, 17, of Bealeton were airlifted to INOVA Fairfax Hospital.

After school on Wednesday, friends of the car-crash victims made a pilgrimage to site of the accident.

The students, ranging in age from 15 to 18, arrive in clusters of two or three, parking in a nearby field and walking the short distance down the scorching hot asphalt to the spot on a sharp curve, where a yellow caution sign, partially obscured by overgrown brush, warns of a 20 mph limit.

The driver lost control on the curve, hit the tree broadside. Police say speed was a factor.

Slowly, a small crowd of Liberty High School students and a few parents gather — staring in silence at the tree, a good-sized one, possibly ash with a 2-foot wide bare spot where the impact knocked off the bark.

Hugs, tears, red faces, quiet sobs, the students hold an impromptu memorial service for their departed friends.

“Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, thank you for letting some folks show up,” prayed Frankie Tierney, 19, of Bealeton.

“Help Devon and everybody get better. Sucks that you had to take a life from us. They were very, very much loved, and will not be forgotten,” he said, voice breaking.

“Please be with the family and all the loved ones. In God’s name, amen.” he said.

Girls weep. Boys quickly blink away tears.

April Clark, standing in the shade of the tree, shielded the flame of a lighter from the warm breeze as she lit white tapered candles and passed them to the students making a semicircle around the makeshift shrine.

Together they stand in awkward silence, holding their candles.

After a bit, Alex Bell, 18, and Michael Blevins, 18, arrive with a home-made wooden cross and a can of white spray paint. The students take turns covering the cross with white enamel.

“We meant it to be for everybody, that’s why we let everybody paint it,” Bell said.

Bell and Blevins, joined by Tierney, use rope to tie the cross to the tree. They’ll come back later to dig a hole and plant the cross with cement.

April Clark called Montessi, known as “Mikey” to friends, her best friend. Her favorite memory?

Giggling she said, “I don’t think we can speak of that.”

“My favorite time was when me, him and Devon and Caitlin were all chillin’ and we had a bonfire at his house,” she said.

“He was awesome, funny, always smiling, and he’d just say stupid stuff and make you laugh,” she said.

The students heard about the accident almost immediately after it happened. Tierney had heard that “Mikey” was killed.

“Everybody was saying this kid Mikey died, but I didn’t know it was my Mikey,” he said of his best friend.

Several of the students live in the Marsh Run trailer park and sometimes get poked fun at because of it. But they wear their address as a badge of honor.

“Whenever we would do something [in school], the teachers would say it’s because y’all are from the trailer park,” Tierney said, causing April and some of the others to start laughing.

“It’s ‘because we’re from the trailer park,’” she said, laughing.

Tiffani Lambert, 17, called Calyssa Leigh Wickham, known as Caly to friends, “an amazing girl at heart. Montessi always had a smile and could always put a smile on your face.”

“To me, he was the class clown, always running around, always laughing, always having a good time. He was just all around a good person,” she said.

Lisa Needham, a school bus driver who’s known the students for most of their lives, stood on the sidelines and watched the memorial.

“My mother heard Caly sing at church. She said you’d never know it to look at her, because Caly had piercings and colored hair, but my mom said that child sang and she had the voice of an angel, so pure, so innocent,” Needham said.

Mary Penna, mother of April, said of the accident, “I hope this was her wake up call last night.”

“It’s a shame,” she said choking back tears, “little lives taken.”

Tierney had his own brush with death about a month ago when he wrecked his girl friend’s car doing 70 mph on Remington Road. “We got lucky and nobody got hurt,” he said. “Better be safe than sorry.”

Emerald Daigle, 16, said, “as a teen, you never think this going to be my friend. You always think it’s going to be someone else.”

“And, you know what?” Needham said, “It shouldn’t be any of y’all.”

“Because it happens every year. All the children think, ‘I’m invincible, that won’t happen to me,’” she said. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Kevin Mcmanus brought his 15-year-old son, Evan, to the scene of the accident as an object lesson. “He just started driving and I’m just bringing him by to give him a wake up call,” Mcmanus said of the of the Liberty High School freshman.

“I just took my 17-year-old to the judge and he brought up the Bull Run Mountain crash in Haymarket,” Mcmanus said. “It’s [auto accident] the leading cause of death for people between 15 and 19.”

Here’s a pdf of the story:



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