As Chris Hickey thought about what she could say to comfort her daughter on the death of her schoolmates, she opened her mouth once, then twice, unable at first to put sound to words. She tried a third time, standing on the track of Mainland Regional High School Sunday night, a day after a crash on the Garden State Parkway killed four of the school's football players and injured four more.
"I don't even know what to tell her," Hickey said about her daughter Lauren, a junior at the school, who was friends with two of the teens killed. "I don't even know how to make sense of it."
Hickey was among more than 3,000 students, parents, teammates and community members who shared their communal grief Sunday at a vigil at the Linwood school. Standing in the mist under the same lights that typically illuminate Friday night games, mourners lit candles, hugged each other and laid flowers on the field.
The eight boys, who ranged in age from 15 to 17, had been in an SUV Saturday morning on their way to meet other players at a favorite brunch spot in Mays Landing, when the driver, 17-year-old Casey Brenner of Northfield, apparently lost control as he turned a corner and approached heavy traffic. Sgt. Julian Castellanos, a state police spokesman, said the SUV overturned multiple times, ejecting two passengers. A passing car then struck one of the passengers.
The four who survived had non-life-threatening injuries. At least three of the crash survivors were present at the vigil to mourn their friends, said Northfield Police Chief Robert James.
Grief took many forms as students consoled each other and waited their turn to speak with the victims' families. One male student pulled off his shirt, revealing a freshly inked tattoo which said "Dean," a reference to 15-year-old Dean Khoury of Linwood, one of the players who died in the crash. Others wore white homemade T-shirts reading "my boys" and "see you on the other side."
And a few sat silently on the grass of the football field, their heads bowed into their hands, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of people milling about around them.
"Right when it happened, I was in total shock, I was just praying it wasn't true," said Joey Geiger, 16, a member of the football team who was not involved in the accident. "Every single play (this season) is now for them."
Team members could be seen huddling with each other in their green jerseys or crying alongside fellow students. Most declined to talk to reporters.
"I wish we could take it all back _ all of it," said another team member who declined to elaborate or to provide his name out of sensitivity for the other players.
State police said Sunday the investigation was ongoing. They did not release details about the speed of the SUV before the crash or whether the students were wearing seatbelts. Under New Jersey law, drivers under 18 generally are not allowed to carry more than one passenger unless a parent or guardian is in the vehicle.
At the center of the mass that swarmed the field after brief comments by school leaders was a set of photographs of the four who died in the crash: Khoury, Brenner, and 16-year-olds Edgar Bozzi of Somers Point and Nicholas Conner of Northfield. In the photos, the players stand against a white wall in team jerseys, with overlapped hands resting at their waist and determined looks on their faces.
Earlier Sunday, school superintendent Thomas Baruffi said the four players who died were good students, good athletes and well-liked. He said he has had students die before, but never multiple deaths at the same time.
"They're always tragic," he said. "You know there's nothing you can say or do that's enough."
The injured students included Linwood residents Jacob Smith and Kenneth Randall, both 15, and Northfield residents Kyle Beattie and Alex Denafo, both 16.
The first game of the season for the Mustangs, who have won six state championships, is scheduled for Sept. 9 _ three days before the start of the school year for Mainland's 1,600 students.
Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Linwood and Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton contributed to this report.
Reach Lederman at http://www.twitter.com/joshledermanAP.