Jacob Dennis, 17, had only recently received his provisional license and was steering the pickup he had painstakingly rebuilt with his father on a Damascus road Tuesday night.
Dennis, of Boyds, Md., and two Clarksburg High School football teammates drove a dark, descending and twisting lane before reaching a bend to the right, police said. The Ford F-250 veered off the pavement, then slammed into a tree so hard its axle snapped.
The three were killed, only hours before the Clarksburg High graduation. A moment that is normally joyous for high school students suddenly turned to mourning for the three juniors.
At the graduation ceremony Wednesday, Montgomery County Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski offered the shocked and saddened students “condolences and congratulations.”
“Your loss was personal for me, too, as I knew one of the three amazing boys,” Smondrowski said. “But it’s important that this tragedy remind us exactly why we need to cherish the important moments that we have with our family and our friends.”
Police identified Dennis’s classmates who died as Patrick Andrew Shifflett, 18, of Laytonsville and Cary Mauri’ce Greene, 17, of Clarksburg. The teens were remembered as popular and funny.
Police said speed and inexperience contributed to the crash and that alcohol did not appear to play a role. Police were called to the scene of the crash on Burnt Hill Road near Kingstead Road around 11:35 p.m., just minutes before the midnight curfew on Dennis’s provisional license.
The three teens were in the truck’s cab, and no air bags were deployed. The pickup that Dennis and his father had spent hours restoring was reduced to a mound of twisted metal.
“These young men took the full brunt of the force of the truck hitting the tree,” said Capt. Tom Didone, commander of the traffic division for Montgomery County police. “This is one of those beginning-of-summer tragedies that hopefully resonates through the community so that people will proceed more carefully.”
Didone said Dennis and the passenger near the door were wearing seat belts and shoulder restraints but that it was unclear whether the middle passenger had been seat-belted and that it appeared he did not have a shoulder restraint.
Didone said Dennis appears to have received his provisional license in March. For a five-month stretch, the license called for driving only with family members and with restrictions between midnight and 5 a.m.
It’s the second year in a row that a Montgomery County school has marked the start of summer with a fatal car crash. Last June, two Wootton High School students were killed in an alcohol-involved crash following a party.
Tammy Frost, Shifflett’s aunt, said her nephew had been swimming at Dennis’s house earlier in the evening and had planned to have a sleepover there. She said the family did not know why the teens were on the road, but she said she had driven the curve where the wreck occurred.
“It’s a bad turn for an experienced driver, much less an inexperienced driver,” Frost said.
In the half-mile preceding the crash site, the road descends through a series of increasingly tight S-curves. The wreck occurred at the base of a hill as the road bends.
Dennis Fling, the grandfather of Jacob Dennis, arrived at the crash site Wednesday afternoon with another family member. “It’s a nightmare,” Fling said. “I can visualize what happened.”
He said his grandson loved his truck. “He wanted an old truck like his dad had when he was his age.” The truck, which father and son had rebuilt, had a large Maryland flag on the back that was distinctive and a point of pride by which his grandson was known.
He said Dennis was a tough kid, even though he was not a large player. “He’d take on the biggest one out there.”
Fling and some of Dennis’s friends, who also gathered at the site, said he spoke of wanting to be a police officer.
A group of school friends and some family members left flowers, footballs and notes at the site, and some carried away small bits of the wreckage as they left.
Clarksburg High School football coach Larry Hurd Jr. described the teens as “tremendous students and very talented football players.”
Hurd said he had been in contact with all three Tuesday by text message, discussing mundane details about grades and workouts.
“I really love all those boys. They’re all workers, all a big part of our program,” Hurd said. “We’ll all mourn together. Somehow we’ll mourn and try to work through this time.”
Hurd said Shifflett was getting ready to be a three-year starter at tackle and worked at his father’s paint business. Frost said he was a co-captain of the team during the fall season. He had three brothers.
Frost said Shifflett had a saying: “Keep on being humble.”
“He could make anyone laugh,” Frost said of her nephew. “If you told Pat a secret, he would keep it until it was ready to be told.”
Hurd said Dennis played linebacker and tight end and worked as a lifeguard at a community pool. Stacy Griffith, Dennis’s aunt, said his loss was keenly felt.
“He was a happy kid,” Griffith said. “He always had a big smile on his face.”
Greene had transferred from Damascus High School to Clarksburg before the 2015-2016 school year. Hurd said he was participating in offseason workouts and was set to play for the team in the fall, and that he worked at a Harris Teeter market.
Damascus High School head football coach Eric Wallich said Greene had played on the junior varsity football team there. He called Greene “just a good all-around kid,” who was a good student, respectful and a hard worker.
Greene’s family did not return calls for comment, but one of his classmates described him as deeply affectionate. He was prone to ending conversations by saying “I love you!” and was fond of greeting friends passing in the hallway with just a wink and sly smile.
The deaths came less than 12 hours before Clarksburg held its graduation on Wednesday in a gymnasium at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg. Seniors, in navy and sky-blue graduation gowns, paused for a moment of silence to remember the three students.
The tone of the ceremony was joyous, but beneath the surface, there was a sense of disbelief and sadness for many students, particularly for football players.
As families posed for photos with smiling graduates on the grassy hill outside the gym, classmates shared memories, pulling up photos and videos on their phones to replay the time that Dennis, a jokester, attempted a backflip but landed on his face. Or the time Greene could not keep a straight face for a video class assignment.
Graduating senior Zachery Fiscus, 17, had played football with Shifflett from the time they were in eighth grade. Their families were also close, and he said he regarded Shifflett more like a brother than a friend.
“He’s been on my left and my right since I’ve been putting on pads,” said Fiscus, wearing his mortarboard.
His parents woke him at 6 a.m. to tell him about the car crash.
“It was supposed to be a joyful day,” Fiscus said. “But I was half and half. I was really sad that I lost two brothers and a friend. But I also wanted to celebrate this day for them.”
Eric Goldwein, Donna St. George, Perry Stein, Magda Jean-Louis and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.