Deaths of 10 students tear at community's heart
Aug. 01, 1997
PLYMOUTH, N.C. (AP) _ The Plymouth High School band room usually resonates with the sounds of laughter, trumpets, clarinets and other instruments. On Thursday, the room was silent.
Friends of 10 young students killed Wednesday in a traffic accident went elsewhere to grieve. With summer band camp canceled, students met with counselors. Some cried as they went in; some sobbed on the way out.
``It's hard,'' said Mandy Hedgepeth, 14, who plays saxophone. ``They were my friends and they were nice.''
The band room was left as it was Wednesday when students learned that their classmates were dead. The 10 students, including nine musicians, were headed back to school after lunch when their Ford Explorer passed several cars in a no-passing zone, lost control and slammed broadside into an oncoming tractor-trailer.
On Thursday, band director Leroy Bland struggled to get change for a soda machine before going to the crisis center to talk to students.
The victims had been in his class since seventh grade. Two of them, Marcus Bratts and Damien Burden, were band leaders.
``They grew up with me,'' he said. ``They were fantastic kids.''
In the band room, smiling out from a wide color picture, were all 79 members of the Plymouth High Marching Vikings in white and blue uniforms.
``Something like this hits our school right in the heart,'' said Principal William J. Sermons, his voice cracking.
Signs around this town of 4,000, about 100 miles east of Raleigh, reflected the community's loss. ``God Bless the Children and Their Families,'' read one. A huge American flag flew at half-staff outside a convenience store.
At the accident scene, mourners had placed a heart-shaped wreath of flowers, a potted flower and a bouquet.
``When something like this happens to just one of our students, it has far-reaching effects on the community,'' Sermons said. ``But when something like this happens to so many, it's devastating. ... What happens in Plymouth, happens in the whole town.''