All day they came yesterday, students and teachers, neighbors and strangers, to the accident site on a two-lane curving road in Stafford County, Va., to remember the four teenagers who died there Tuesday when their car collided with a school bus.
Some carried flowers or clasped the hand of a friend. Many wept as they looked at the four small crosses erected in the names of North Stafford High School students James E. Thomas Jr., 18; Vi T. Do, 14; Dwight Oakley, 18; and Victor Guzman, 16.
The students, on their way home from school, were killed about 3 p.m. Tuesday on Route 643 about half a mile from North Stafford when the orange 1972 Volkswagen Beetle driven by Thomas swerved into the path of the bus. Police said three of the teenagers died on impact of head and body injuries. Thomas died a short time later on the way to Washington Hospital Center in a helicopter. None of the students was wearing a seat belt, police said.
Classes at the 1,900-student school were adjourned at 11:15 a.m. yesterday to give students time to deal with their grief. Students clung to each other as teachers tried to comfort them. Counselors were at the school to help.
"The North Stafford community is crying," said Principal Robert White. "Our community is shocked by the last 24 hours."
The accident marked the second time in four years that North Stafford students have been shaken by the tragic deaths of classmates. Four students were killed in three accidents during one weekend in 1986, said Andrea Erard, a Stafford County schools spokeswoman.
Yesterday, friends and school officials described the four teenagers who died Tuesday as good kids who shared a love of the martial arts. The group often delighted friends with impromptu performances of rap music in the school cafeteria, friends said.
Thomas was a kick-boxing enthusiast who had won several trophies. One of the crosses at the accident site, emblazoned in bright red with Thomas's name, was draped with a purple karate belt and a martial arts patch. Another patch adorned Oakley's cross.
Strewn among the crosses were red flowers. A note lying on the ground read: "We will always love you." It was signed with a happy face.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said yesterday that speed was a factor in the accident. The Volkswagen was traveling "well above" the 45 mile-per-hour speed limit when it collided with the bus, driven by Gloria Graham, 40. Graham had just dropped off some North Stafford students and was on her way to another school when the accident occurred, police said. She was treated at Potomac Hospital in Prince William County and released.
Graham said the Volkswagon fishtailed and nearly hit a bus in front of hers. She slammed on her brakes.
"I just prayed that he'd stop in time and get it under control," Graham said. "I just couldn't do anything but sit there and watch it slide right into me. I tried. I feel so sorry for the families of the kids. But I tried. God knows I tried."
Police said that Route 643 is difficult to navigate and that accidents are common. "If you come down there too fast and don't have control, you're going to have problems," said Ralph A. Marceron, a police supervisor.
At a memorial service for Guzman yesterday afternoon, hundreds of friends and family members formed a line that stretched out the door.
Guzman was remembered for his dancing. Friends said he had a great sense of humor. "He was always dancing, even in art class, one said.
Family friend Raymond Johnson said Thomas's father, James E. Thomas Sr., was driving home when he came upon the accident scene. He cradled his son in his arms before the boy was placed in the helicopter.
At the high school yesterday, Thomas, who with his daughter was cleaning out the dead youth's locker, told his son's friends to work hard and finish school.
In front of the school auditorium, a friend of the group had scrawled a goodbye on the sidewalk. "Our loss is great, but so is the memory," it said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.