(MCT) — Before the start of school Tuesday, the word had spread through social media: Two teenagers died in a horrific single-car crash the night before on a dark, rain-slick road in far northwest suburban Antioch Township.
Students anxiously traded information and began posting tributes even before authorities confirmed the victims' names: Ashley Seay, 17, of Lindenhurst, and Joel Wittkamp, 16, of Antioch. Some teens stayed home from school, shaken by the latest tragedy in a series of bad news for young people in this tightknit community a few miles south of the Wisconsin state line.
"It's sad that another car accident had to take another teenager's life," said Nathan Hawksworth, 17, of Lake Villa, among those who stayed home. "That seems to be how all the teenagers out here are dying."
Hawksworth attends Grayslake North High School, and said he went to middle school with Ashley. He recalled the death of Nicholas Bonilla, 18, of Lindenhurst, who drowned in November after driving his car into a pond near Lake Villa. That same month, Nicole Parfitt, 14, a freshman at Antioch High School, was killed along with her father in a plane crash.
Their deaths were preceded by that of another Antioch youth, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Collins, who was 19 when she suffered fatal injuries in a collision on Interstate Highway 94 in Lake County in January 2012.
Many in the community were also affected by the slaying of Lake Villa resident William Pettry, 42, a father of three killed while visiting Jacksonville, Fla., to attend a Bears game.
While their deaths were unrelated, sadness rippled through the area.
"When there is a tragedy that is so broad and reaches so far, the profound impact of that is truly challenging," said Steve Plank, principal at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa, where counselors repeated a crisis drill that has become all too familiar.
"There are really no words," he said. "We certainly grieve together and support one another."
On Monday, Joel was driving a Chevrolet Trailblazer west on Wilmot Road, with Ashley as his passenger, when the car veered off the road about 7 p.m., according to the Lake County sheriff's office. The SUV went through a yard before hitting the tree, the office said.
Both teens died at the scene, according to the Lake County coroner's office.
Authorities said they believe weather contributed to the crash. Orlando Portillo, deputy chief for the coroner's office, said he drove through rain and snow to reach the accident scene.
"It was nighttime when this occurred. It was a very dark road," Portillo said. "Could a deer have popped out in front of the car? Could have. Nobody knows. ... We don't know if high speeds played into this or not."
Toxicology tests are pending, but officials say there is no indication that alcohol or drugs were a factor.
Joel was a junior and football player at Antioch High. Ashley, a junior at Lakes High, was studying cosmetology. She came from a large family, including a set of younger twin sisters who also attend Lakes.
Administrators at both schools put in place a crisis team, with a counselor following the schedule of each deceased student throughout the day, making themselves available to Ashley and Joel's classmates, said Antioch High School Principal John Whitehurst.
Mariella Galletti, 14, of Lindenhurst, said the deaths brought back terrible memories after she suffered the loss of her best friend, Nicole Parfitt, last fall. Mariella, who attends Lakes, didn't know Ashley or Joel.
"I know how hard it is to lose someone close to you," she said. "I wish I could have her back."
Students "feel sad but don't know what to say about it," Mariella said.
Teachers who have taught several of Ashley's older siblings took the news especially hard, Plank said.
"There was a deep connection between the family, the school and community," he said.
At Antioch High, football coach Brian Glashagel called a meeting with players at the end of the school day to talk about their loss. Throughout the day, he said, he heard the same words used to describe Joel, a defensive player and team member for three seasons.
"Free spirit, made people laugh," Glashagel said. "He could bring light to tough times. He was that type of spirited kid. Football-/wise, he was just a hard worker, just like he was in the classroom."
Glashagel struggled like everyone to make sense of the news.
"I think people are in a weird way just numb," Glashagel said. "If we could explain it, we would be very wise people."
Since Nicole's death, Mariella said she has spent time with Nicole's mother and younger brother, playing at arcades or going to visit the grave.
She knows that coping with grief is difficult.
"But family and friends help each other out," she said. "It's nice that the community gets together and gets closer at tough times."
Tribune reporter Dan Haar and freelance reporter Ruth Fuller contributed.