Conn. town devastated by crash that killed 4 teens

Flowers are seen at a memorial at the scene of the crash where four teens were killed in a single-vehicle accident Tuesday in Griswold, Conn., Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

December 8, 2010 5:59:22 PM PST
Mourners exchanged hugs and tears Wednesday as they created a makeshift memorial by the side of a narrow country road where four teenagers were killed and another critically wounded when their car crashed into two trees.

"Steve was my best friend," 15-year-old Floyd Flint said about victim Steven Szklarz as he cried at the accident site. "It's never going to be the same. Anything."

Tuesday afternoon's crash on Route 201 in eastern Connecticut came as the state marked Teen Safe Driving Week, and a day after transportation officials announced that fatal crashes in the state were at a 12-year low among 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

State police said the driver was 16-year-old John Clapper, who had a learner's permit that only allowed him to have a parent, guardian or instructor as a passenger when he drove. Troopers haven't determined why Clapper lost control of the car.

The others who died were identified as 16-year-old Sativa Cornell, 16-year-old Dillon Clifford and Szklarz, who was 15. The surviving passenger, 16-year-old Joel Gallup, was hospitalized in critical condition. Cornell was the front seat passenger, while the other three victims were in the back seat, officials said.

All were students at Griswold High School, where grief counselors were made available for students Wednesday. Funeral arrangements weren't announced.

Hundreds of friends, relatives and well-wishers gathered at the Griswold Veterans Memorial Park on Wednesday evening for a brief candlelight vigil. They observed a minute of silence, said a prayer and someone spoke on behalf of the family of the surviving teenager.

The vigil ended with an impromptu "Amazing Grace" led by a group of teenagers standing on a hill.

Friends said Clapper and Cornell were dating. Authorities said the 2007 Nissan Altima was registered to Gina Pelletier of Griswold, who the victims' friends said was Cornell's mother. A woman who answered the phone at Pelletier and Cornell's address declined to comment, and no one answered the door at Clapper's home Wednesday.

A steady flow of traffic passed the accident site Wednesday.

Many people got out of their cars to pay their respects. Some cried and hugged. Flowers, balloons and other items were placed at the base of the two trees the car hit. Someone stuck a small snowman ornament on one of the trees.

Students who returned to Griswold High School on Wednesday said the normally noisy hallways were silent, and many left school early because the sadness was too difficult to take.

"You could hear a pin drop," said 16-year-old Jessica Drager, who was friends with Cornell and was a neighbor of Clapper. "To lose five people at once is just so shocking. They were such good people. They would do anything for you."

Drager was among those who left school early.

"I couldn't handle being in school with everybody crying," she said. "I just felt so depressed."

Friends of the teens also shared their grief Tuesday night and Wednesday on Facebook, where more than 2,300 people were following a memorial page. Several changed their profile pictures to Griswold High's green "G" or its Wolverines logo, sent condolences to the families or shared memories of being on sports teams with some of the teens.

Griswold is a rural working class town of about 12,000 people located about 50 miles southeast of Hartford and 10 miles west of the Rhode Island line. About 750 students attend the town's high school.

"It's a huge loss to our community and everybody in our school and everybody in our town is feeling it right now," Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman said in an interview.

Jordan Robillard, 18, said it was hard to describe how he felt.

He grew up next door to Clapper and the two rode bikes and played games together when they were younger. He also lost his best friend, Tyler Marsh, in a motorcycle accident in town last summer.

"It's a horrible tragedy. It's crazy," he said during an interview at his home, where he slumped on a couch. "There are no words for it. Losing two people is hard."

Authorities said Clapper was driving southbound on Route 201 and lost control of the car on a short, narrow straightaway after traveling over a small crest in the road. It's not clear if any of the teens were wearing seat belts.

Clapper received his learner's permit in August and had not been issued a license, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The governor and state lawmakers in 2008 made teen driver laws tougher after several fatal accidents involving young people.

Szklarz's brother left a piece of paper at the crash site that had a picture of the two with a note underneath.

"My brother, my best friend, life will not be the same, all our plans for the future, all our great memories," the note read.

"Spending my summer vacation and all of last year together was the best time of my life. Steven Walter Szklarz will remain in my heart until the day I die."

The mood around town was subdued Wednesday.

Jim Pendergast, a 38-year-old home contractor, said his 16-year-old daughter Samantha knows at least a couple of the victims. He said she drove by the crash site as she returned from her great-grandmother's funeral Tuesday afternoon.

"It's a sad thing. You don't want to lose any kids, let alone four," Pendergast said inside a convenience store.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the crash.

"We'll examine everything and anything to determine what happened," state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said.


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