Local News

Authorities Say Speed May Have Been Factor In Paris Bus Accident

Posted April 21, 2004

— Some members of a youth soccer team from North Carolina are scheduled to return home Monday, almost a day after a bus carrying the team overturned in a ditch east of Paris, killing a 13-year-old from Jacksonville.

Authorities in the Seine-et-Marne region said a bus carrying about 34 people -- including two drivers -- fell over along a curve in a highway near Mitry-Mory, east of Paris.

French investigators say the bus was going too fast and the onboard device meant to limit its speed was not working and may have been disabled deliberately. The roads reportedly were wet from overnight rain.

The player who was killed was identified as Matt Helms, 13, a goaltender from Jacksonville. He was part of the '90 Olympic Development team, a select soccer team comprised of the best players from all over the state.

Helms attended Hunter's Creek Middle School. The principal said counselors will be on hand Monday to help students cope with the news.

The team had been invited to France to play in the Nantes Tournament. They were on their way to a Paris airport to return to North Carolina when the accident happened.

The airport reportedly was in sight when the accident happened.

Helms' coach, Ray Colley, recalled meeting Helms at a team tryout when Helms was 10.

"I can remember going home to my wife and saying: 'That goalkeeper can really play,'" Colley said from the Helms family home in Jacksonville.

Helms, who excelled at shot blocking, played year-round for the

Onslow Classic Soccer Association

'89 Coastal Crew out of Jacksonville, Colley said.

Dale Altman, OCSA vice president, said the group was working on memorials for Helms. He added that the team would wear black arm bands in remembrance.

"His teammates love him," Colley said. "He was just really fun and so focused.

"I remember when he had Mono last fall, they all said: 'Omigosh, what are we going to do without Matt?'"

Colley said the teenager had been hand-picked as one of only two goalies for the team, sponsored by the

North Carolina Youth Soccer Association.

"The Olympic Development Program is a program that we run to identify the best soccer players in the state," said Robert Singer, the group's president.

A statement from Singer regarding the accident was posted on the NCYSA's Web site:

"This morning, Sunday, April 18th, our community of soccer players and their families, coaches, clubs and supporters has suffered a terrible tragedy," Singer said in the statement. "Our '90 ODP boys team played a series of matches in Europe over the past ten days. This morning, they were traveling to a Paris airport to return to North Carolina. We do not know all the facts as yet, but they were involved in a serious accident. We do know that we have lost one of our boys and that several other boys have sustained serious injuries. Some of the adults accompanying the team are also injured. Those of us who have not lost a child cannot comprehend what the family of the boy fatally injured is experiencing and will experience. All of us can, however, surround this family and the families of those injured with our thoughts, prayers and love."

Kevin Sephton, coach of Charlotte United, confirmed that three players from Charlotte had been injured -- two severely. He said Julian Brown, 13, had been unconscious earlier in the day with a leg injury.

"Julian was fairly critical earlier today," Sephton said late Sunday. "But I'm told he's doing a little better after surgery on his leg. I'm not sure what condition he's in now."

Sephton said Charlotte United's Connor Holzinger, 14, suffered a few grazes to the knee.

"It's difficult to hear that one of your boys is doing badly and one well, but we're all hoping Julian recovers quickly," he said.

North Carolina soccer officials said 14-year-old Nick Stemkowski of South Charlotte Soccer Club had suffered severe damage to his hand.

There were 18 boys on the trip, all 13 and 14. All the boys were from Charlotte, Raleigh, Jacksonville and Fayetteville.

Also on the trip were two coaches and 10 or 11 parents.

The team finished fifth out of 25 teams in the international tournament. Most of the players will be flying home Monday into Charlotte.

Graham Vestal, 13, and his father, Mark Vestal, both of Fayetteville, also were on the bus and sustained injuries in the crash.

Ellen Gangway, Mark Vestal's sister and Graham's aunt, said Graham received stitches in his head and arms and may have sustained a concussion.

She said they hope to return to Fayetteville on Monday.

"We're just hoping they'll get home soon," Gangway said.

Player Vince Llana, of Raleigh, received only minor injuries.

Llana's father, Vicente, said he was worried before he even was informed about the accident by phone at 4:45 Sunday morning.

"Last night, I could not sleep for some weird reason," Vicente said. "(When the phone rang), the first thing that happened was a big lump in my throat, and I could barely get the words out.

"I said: 'Is Vince O.K?'"

The answer was yes.

"When I spoke to him, " Vicente said, "he said: 'Dad, most of us were asleep, and we awoke to the rolling over of the bus.'"

Though Vince was O.K. physically, he was devastated emotionally because his new-found friend was killed.

"They developed a friendship," Vicente said. "He said: 'My friend passed on, Dad. That's messed up...'"

At that point, Vicente said he realized just how helpless he was with his son an ocean away.

"I had all these questions I had written down, being the organized tough guy I pretend to be," he said. "After that, all of that went down the drain, and I just choked up and couldn't talk to him anymore."

Vince called back later to tell his parents the gifts he got them were lost.

"Don't worry about the presents, Buddy," his father told him. "You're our present when you get home, O.K.? We love you."

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