By the time they arrived at school yesterday, many students at T.C. Williams High School knew that a car accident the day before had taken the life of honors student and talented rower Laura Lynam.
But seeing Lynam's empty desk brought it home.
"It was really hard, especially in the classes I had with her," said Emily Clausen, who had known Lynam since the two were Girl Scouts together in elementary school. More recently, they had shared AP English, AP Latin and yearbook classes and been stand partners in orchestra.
The night before, many in the tight-knit community had packed into Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Alexandria, a block from the school, for a vigil that took place only hours after her death.
The accident occurred at 9:39 a.m. Sunday, when the Cadillac Escalade SUV in which Lynam, 17, was riding overturned on Interstate 95 south in the Newington area of Fairfax County. The car was carrying Lynam and six other T.C. Williams rowers on their way to a regatta at the Occoquan Reservoir, about 15 miles from Alexandria; the car's other occupants escaped with minor injuries.
Sgt. Wallace L. Bouldin, a Virginia State Police spokesman, said the driver was thought to be going about 10 miles faster than the 55-mph speed limit. Bouldin said her name was not released because she might face charges of reckless driving, failure to maintain proper control of the vehicle and operating a vehicle with too many juvenile passengers.
A 2001 state law prohibits people 17 and younger from driving with more than one passenger. Bouldin said many adults are unaware of the law.
Lynam was wearing a seat belt, but it was not clear whether the others were wearing theirs, he said. According to Bouldin, the driver started to change lanes but realized another vehicle was in the adjacent lane. When she saw that she was about to collide with the other vehicle, she swerved too severely back into her lane, Bouldin said, and the SUV flipped two or three times.
The school's crew does not practice in the fall, but many area rowers join off-campus rowing teams. Lynam and her teammates were rowing for the Old Dominion Boat Club in Alexandria, which has fall competitions for high school students. More than half of its 50-plus rowers attend T.C. Williams.
Whitney Post, 17, was in Lynam's AP English class and recalled that she got top marks in school and that her essays were often displayed for the class to read. But the accolades didn't go to her head. "She's always been really gracious about her grades, and she didn't brag about them," Post said.
Post said Lynam loved rowing and had followed her mother and older brother, Sean, into the sport.
Lynam also hoped to follow Sean, a 2003 T.C. Williams graduate, to Yale University. One of the school's two National Merit Scholarship semifinalists this year, she had recently applied for early acceptance to Yale and wanted to become a doctor.
"She was just doing the editing for her essay," Post said. "I'm sure she would have gotten in."
Patrick Welsh, Lynam's English teacher, called Lynam "brilliant -- and I'm not just saying that." Staring at a computer screen showing a paragraph from one of Lynam's recent essays, he said her writing was "up in the stratosphere."
Sunday's accident was one of a string of fatal car crashes involving area teenagers in the past month. Welsh said that after the rash of tragedies, the class had read two poems Friday on the subject: "Auto Wreck," by Karl Shapiro, and "Cambridge Elegy," by Sharon Olds, written for a teenager who died in a car accident.
Clausen said she relied on Lynam's confidence and problem-solving skills to help get her through stressful periods.
"There was some pressure on us last year because we were both first violin, second stand," Clausen said. "I could always count on her . . . if I had trouble understanding anything."
Lynam is the third person associated with the T.C. Williams rowing team to die in just over a year. Schuyler H. Jones, 16, was beaten to death in Old Town in September 2003; and Steve Catilo, 20, a T.C. Williams graduate and rowing coach, drowned over the summer. Catilo was in a small motor launch accompanying student rowers when he drowned.
Jim Dooley, chairman of the rowing committee at the Old Dominion Boat Club, said the girls did not practice as usual yesterday. He added that none of T.C. Williams's rower fatalities had to do with rowing. "It was just a freak accident," he said. "Our hearts go out to them."
A viewing and wake for Lynam will be held at the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow. The funeral will be held 10 a.m. Thursday at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Braddock Road, where Lynam's family attends.