Plymouth, NC Terrible Vehicle Collision, July 1997

DEATHS OF 10 STUDENTS SHOCK TOWN.

SPEED APPARENTLY WAS NOT A FACTOR IN THE COLLISION THAT HAPPENED IN A NO-PASSING ZONE ON THE RAIN-SLICKENED HIGHWAY, AUTHORITIES SAY.

Plymouth (AP) -- The deaths of 10 high school students crammed into a vehicle that wrecked during a lunch break from a band camp shocked this small eastern North Carolina town.
"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 died after a blue 1991 Ford Explorer they were in passed three vehicles in a no-passing zone on N.C. 45, went out of control on the rain-slickened highway and slammed broadside into an oncoming tractor-trailer.
The students were "lunch buddies," said Elena Barber, a secretary at the 700-student Plymouth High School.
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 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.
Two of the dead were identified as DAMIEN BURDEN, 17, the driver of the Explorer, and his brother BOBBY BURDEN, 15. They were the grandsons of Washington County Commission chairman Ernest Burden.
"Just pray for us," said Barbara Burden, the boys' grandmother.
"They were just teen-agers. We had a buddy relationship. I want to remember them like I saw them this morning."
Also killed were:
RICO BLOUNT, 14.
RASHAD MALIK, 15.
NORMAN WILSON, JR., 15.
CLAYTON CHESSON, 14.
ERICA DOWNING, 15.
CHRISTIE TOODLE, 15.
FELICIA DAVIS, 15.
MARCUS BRATTS, 16.
"I don't know any other word except disbelief," said band director Leroy Bland.
Downing's father, Timothy, was in shock as he listened to police announce the names of the victims in the courtroom of the Washington County Courthouse. Several other relatives of victims also listened as police disclosed details of the accident during a news conference.
"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 made 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."
Trooper 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.

The Robesonian Lumberton North Carolina 1997-07-31