When Bennett Rill handed his parents a straight-A report card on the last day of school Tuesday, a long summer and a promising future stretched before the talented student and athlete.
Carolyn Rill said her 14-year-old son was buoyant as he asked to go out with friends. She saw no reason to object, telling him: “Do what you want to do. You had a great year.”
But just hours after the Oak Hill boy graduated from eighth grade at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, he was dead. His parents said it appears that he was electrocuted trying to help a friend who had been shocked by a live electrical wire. Fairfax County police called the incident a “terrible tragedy.”
Derick Rill said it would not surprise him if his son died rendering aid; it was the way he lived. Bennett tutored kids at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, and friends said he was quick with an encouraging word. A coach said he went all-out on the basketball court and football field.
“Bennett showed such an incredible spirit. It lifted up his teammates, lifted up his church and lifted up his family,” Derick Rill said. “I want to carry him with me forever. I hope others do the same, too.”
Carolyn Rill said she dropped Bennett and three friends off at Herndon’s Glory Days Grill to eat dinner Tuesday evening. Afterward, the three 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old wandered over to nearby Fox Mill Elementary School.
It’s unclear why, but the teens began to climb the side of the school, which was wet. The president of the elementary school’s PTA said students have long tried to climb onto school roofs in Fairfax County.
The parents of the 15-year-old who was with Bennett said their son felt “pins and needles” throughout his body as he scaled the building and began to realize there was an electric current running through the water.
A moment later, the family said, the boy received a strong electrical shock and was blown off the structure.
The family said the 15-year-old fell about 10 to 12 feet to the ground. The other boys rushed to help the teen, who was unconscious. Bennett became entangled in electrical wires and was electrocuted, they said.
The Rills said police told them that a preliminary investigation found that the teens had been climbing a chain-link fence next to the school and using a wire that ran along the building’s wall as a foothold in an attempt to gain access to the roof. At some point, one of the teens dislodged the wire and fell. As he tried to reach his friend, Bennett was electrocuted.
Fairfax County police declined to comment on either account, but they said officers were called to the school shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday. Police said that Bennett was pronounced dead at the scene and that the three other boys were taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital with injuries not deemed life-threatening.
Police said it’s unlikely that any charges will be filed because the teens did not enter the school or try to cause damage.
John Torre, a spokesman for the county schools, said officials are “continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding this very tragic event.” He said security personnel do not typically patrol most schools after hours.
On Wednesday afternoon, students gathered for a vigil at Rachel Carson Middle School on what should have been a joyous first day of summer. Reporters were not allowed inside, but one attendee said the crowd filled the bleachers of the school’s gym.
Thomas Parisi, 14, who described himself as Bennett’s best friend, said Bennett was “outgoing, athletic, funny, smart.” After the vigil, he said it was almost too painful to attend as students exchanged remembrances, hugged and cried. Flowers were left in front of the school.
“I could barely be in there,” Thomas said.
Derrick West, who just finished eighth grade at Rachel Carson, said Bennett was well liked and was a confidant of many students.
“He was a cool person. You could tell him secrets,” Derrick said. “When I was down at school, he would make me feel better.”
Earlier in the day, the Rills sat on the deck of their Oak Hill home, recounting how a day that started with such promise turned so tragic. Bennett’s report card was in front of them, on a table, as was a card he made for an uncle out of red construction paper.
“How many kids do you know that give their uncles Father’s Day cards?” Derick Rill asked with tears in his eyes.
The Rills said that Bennett, the middle of three children, was an avid basketball and football player and that he had planned to attend Oakton High School. He had recently run a 5-kilometer race, pushing so hard that he made himself sick during the race. Bennett recovered, though, and finished second in his age group.
Derick Rill said he took Bennett to the bus stop Tuesday morning, something he was now immensely thankful he got to do.
Bennett had half a day of school at Rachel Carson and then came home, excited about what the summer held. The family planned to visit relatives in Iowa, and Bennett was going to attend basketball camp.
After Carolyn Rill dropped the teens off at Glory Days in the evening, she exchanged texts with Bennett. Shortly before he was supposed to come home, she sent one of her last messages, at 8:46 p.m., saying, “see you in a few minutes.” Her son never replied.
“I’m just going to miss him,” Carolyn Rill said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.