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10 Plymouth High School Students Killed In...

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Ten Plymouth High School students killed in a Wednesday accident were all in the school band.
PLYMOUTH — Mangled metal is all that's left of a FordExplorer that was involved in one of this state's deadliesttraffic accidentsWednesday afternoon. Ten high school students are dead and the smallWashington County town of Plymouth is devastated.

The Plymouth High School students were on their way back to school froma band camp when the accident happened around 2:15 p.m. Troopers saythe Explorer skidded sideways as its teenage driver was trying toillegally 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 ofthe students, said Wednesday after the wreck. ``Maybe we'll wake uptomorrow and it won't have happened. But I'm afraid it will beharder. They were good kids.''

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

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

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

Killed in the accident were Damien Burden, 17, who was driving theExplorer, his brother Bobby Burden, 15, Rico Blount, 14, Rashad Malik,15,Norman Wilson Jr., 15, Clayton Chesson II, 14, Erica Downing, 15, ChristyToodle, 15, and Felicia Davis, 15. Marcus Bratts, 16, died later atWashinton 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 andmusical instruments were strewn along the rural eastern North Carolinaroad after the accident, said Doward Jones Jr., editor of the weeklynewspaperThe Roanoke Beaconin Plymouth and one of the firstpeople on the scene.

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

Speed didn't appear to be a factor. Witnesses told police thevehicle was going about 55 mph on the straight and flat two-laneroad 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 lotof people for a Ford Explorer. We probably will never know whathappened.''

Four bodies were found in the roadway and six more in theExplorer, said Trooper P.T. Clark. Nine of the victims died at thescene; 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, wasinvestigating the deaths. She planned to release the bodies torelatives later today, said Betsy Seidel, spokeswoman for PittCounty Memorial Hospital.

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

Bits of plastic and pieces of the Explorer littered thehighway.A broken clarinet lay beside an instrument case on the grassyshoulder. A blue cap lay on the other side of the road. A puddle ofblood was on the pavement near the truck, and 97 cents in changewas scattered nearby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last August, a wreck involving a passenger van and atractor-trailer on Interstate 85 north of Durham killed eightpeople.

Reporter/Photographer:Mark Copeland

From staff and wire reports.

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