Local News

10 Plymouth High School Students Killed In...

Posted July 30, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— Mangled metal is all that's left of a Ford Explorer that was involved in one of this state's deadliest traffic accidents Wednesday afternoon. Ten high school students are dead and the small Washington County town of Plymouth is devastated.

The Plymouth High School students were on their way back to school from a band camp when the accident happened around 2:15 p.m. Troopers say the Explorer skidded sideways as its teenage driver was trying to illegally pass three cars on N.C. 45 just a few miles north of Plymouth. He lost control of the vehicle and was broad-sided by a tractor-trailer. Officials said rain had made the highway slippery.

Band member Marlon Norman says all 10 students were his friends.

``It's almost like a bad dream,'' Beth Floyd, who knew two of the students, said Wednesday after the wreck. ``Maybe we'll wake up tomorrow and it won't have happened. But I'm afraid it will be harder. They were good kids.''

The students were ``lunch buddies,'' said Elena Barber, a secretary at the 700-student Plymouth High School.

Principal Bill Sermons says these were all kids who had plans and dreams.

Sermon added that the school's counseling room will remain open as long as the town of Plymouth needs it.

Killed in the accident were Damien Burden, 17, who was driving the Explorer, his brother Bobby Burden, 15, Rico Blount, 14, Rashad Malik, 15, Norman Wilson Jr., 15, Clayton Chesson II, 14, Erica Downing, 15, Christy Toodle, 15, and Felicia Davis, 15. Marcus Bratts, 16, died later at Washinton County Hospital. All were riding in the Explorer.

Waters the students were on a lunch break when the accident occurred.

By 6 p.m., crews were working to clear the road of debris. Bodies and musical instruments were strewn along the rural eastern North Carolina road after the accident, said Doward Jones Jr., editor of the weekly newspaperThe Roanoke Beaconin Plymouth and one of the first people on the scene.

``Everybody's devastated. The band was one of the prides of the high school,'' Jones said.

Speed didn't appear to be a factor. Witnesses told police the vehicle was going about 55 mph on the straight and flat two-lane road just outside of this town of 4,000 residents.

``There were some of the people still in their seat belts,'' said state Highway Patrol Lt. Wayne Taylor. ``Ten people is a lot of people for a Ford Explorer. We probably will never know what happened.''

Four bodies were found in the roadway and six more in the Explorer, said Trooper P.T. Clark. Nine of the victims died at the scene; the other died on the way to a hospital.

The victims' bodies were in Greenville, where Dr. M.G.F. Gilliland, medical examiner for the state's northeast region, was investigating the deaths. She planned to release the bodies to relatives later today, said Betsy Seidel, spokeswoman for Pitt County Memorial Hospital.

The driver of the truck, David Neal Griffin, 43, of Edenton, was treated for minor injuries and released, Taylor said.

Bits of plastic and pieces of the Explorer littered the highway. A broken clarinet lay beside an instrument case on the grassy shoulder. A blue cap lay on the other side of the road. A puddle of blood was on the pavement near the truck, and 97 cents in change was scattered nearby.

The Explorer's tailgate was ripped off by the impact, which crushed the vehicle. Rescuers had to cut off the roof to extricate the victims from the bloody seats.

Waters said school officials are preparing to deal with the grief of victims' families and other students.

Word of the accident spread rapidly through the community of 4,000, and many concerned residents made their way to the accident scene at the busy intersection of N.C. 45 and Mackeys Road.

``I don't know any other word except disbelief,'' said band director Leroy Bland.

Downing's father, Timothy, was among the relatives listening to the victims' names being read in the courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse.

``Basically, there are some things you can't help and you can't do anything about,'' Downing said. ``I just trust in God. I know He's going to provide and make a way for me to stand against this tragic death.

Washington County Sheriff Jim Whitehurst described the accident as ``a large tragedy for a small county.''

Taylor said the wreck was one of the worst in North Carolina history and the worst he had ever seen.

A 1957 accident in Cumberland County involving a van and a truck carrying farm workers killed 20 people. An accident in Lenoir County in 1964 resulted in 10 fatalities.

Last August, a wreck involving a passenger van and a tractor-trailer on Interstate 85 north of Durham killed eight people.

Reporter/Photographer:Mark Copeland

From staff and wire reports.