(MCT) WILMINGTON, Ill. — Micalah Sembach had been only 30 minutes late when her family began to panic.
The 15-year-old had promised, without complaint, to be home by 5 p.m. to finish her chores and work on a math project. It wasn't like her to miss curfew, so relatives called the police Monday evening and quickly formed a search party that included her father, aunt, uncle and half of their neighbors.
Part of the group scoured Wilmington, Ill.'s rural streets on foot, while others drove around the town's unlit back roads for hours in a desperate, nightlong search for the high school freshman and her three teenage friends. Micalah's aunt Melissa Robertson even woke up a local hotel manager in the middle of the night on the remote chance the kids had rented a room there.
As their panic intensified, they called Micalah's cellphone repeatedly, coordinated with the other teens' families, asked for help on social media and prayed against the obvious. Even if they didn't give voice to it, everyone knew something horrible must have happened.
"When she was told to be home, give or take two minutes, she was home," said Robertson, who lived with Micalah and her parents. "That's how much of a good kid she was. So we knew."
What the family didn't know, however, was that their search would come to a heartbreaking end on the outskirts of town shortly after sunrise.
The four teens — Micalah, Cheyenne Fender, 17, Matthew Bailey, 14, and Cody Carter, 15 — had all gone out together after school Monday. They had crammed in the Cheyenne's Mitsubishi Eclipse, even though state law allows only one passenger under the age of 20 to be in the vehicle during the driver's first year of licensing.
As the two-door hatchback traveled along Ballou Road some time later, it smashed into the guard rail west of Warner Bridge Road and flipped into the swollen Forked Creek, a normally shallow tributary that had risen significantly in recent days amid rain and melting snow. The car sank, roof first, to the bottom.
The small sports coupe would remain there throughout the night, cloaked from view until a school bus driver noticed a tire sticking out of the water.
The four friends all drowned in the car, sending the tiny Kankakee River town into mourning and striking fear in the heart of every parent with a teenage driver.
"(I was) praying, begging, pleading, willing to trade," Robertson said, her eyes filling with tears. "Fifteen years old. I'm already tired. She didn't even have a chance to get tired. . . . I'm old and tired. I would have gladly gone in her place."
Just before 7:30 a.m., Robertson received a call from a parent of one of the other teens, saying someone had spotted the Mitsubishi in Forked Creek. Robertson, who had been on her way to meet with a media outlet to get a picture of Micalah on the news, switched on her hazard lights and turned the car around.
Breathless and shaking, she barely lifted her foot off the gas for the next 10 miles, she said.
At one point, she turned to her husband, Aaron Johnson, and handed him her cellphone. She planned to jump in the water and search for Micalah as soon as she got there.
"I was just like, 'Please don't let it be her,' " Johnson said.
When the Will County Sheriff's Department dive team located the car, it was submerged in more than five feet of fast-moving water. Authorities believe the creek was higher at the time of the accident, with one nearby resident telling officers that the creek flooded into the roadway as a wintry mix of ice and snow fell Monday.
Investigators have begun a lengthy accident reconstruction effort to determine the accident's cause. They are considering the possibility that the car hydroplaned on a patch of ice or water and crashed through the guardrail.
The accident occurred on an arrow-straight, unlit section of Ballou Road just a fraction of a mile west of Warner Bridge Road in a rural section of Wesley Township about 8 miles outside Wilmington.
The impact of the crash completely tore the guardrail from the concrete bridge. The rail, which was supported by six steel posts, fell into the water, where a swift current ran past it in swirls and eddied Tuesday.
The car's windows were all closed, and only one of the teens was wearing a seat belt when divers located the vehicle, Will County Deputy Chief Ken Kaupas said. The rescuers could not see clearly in the murky water, so they relied upon touch to determine that multiple bodies were in the car, including three people in the back seat.
It's unclear whether the three unbuckled teens were pushed around the Mitsubishi by the creek's current or if they were trying to escape out the back window, Kaupas said. At least one air bag deployed upon impact.
Authorities do not know who was driving. Cheyenne was the only licensed driver in the vehicle and had obtained it just nine months ago, according to the Illinois secretary of state's office.
Under state law, new drivers can have only one passenger in their car for the first 12 months after they obtain their license or until they turn 18, whichever comes first. The law is meant to curb the number of distractions an inexperienced driver may face on the road initially.
There were no signs of alcohol consumption in the car, authorities said.
"It'll be some time before we actually have some answers to what may have caused this tragedy," Kaupas said.
Wilmington, a small town surrounded by fields of weathered corn stubble along the Kankakee River, is a close-knit community, said Sandy Vasko, who lives just outside town and is clerk of Wesley Township.
In a typical edition of the local paper, a quarter of the dozen or so pages are taken up with pictures and articles about local kids. Graduating classes at Wilmington High have about 90 students.
"This is a town that loves its children," Vasko said, choking up. "The town is devastated."
Local residents, many of them classmates of the four crash victims, filled First United Methodist Church in Wilmington Tuesday evening for a prayer service organized by pastors from several congregations in town. The mourners wiped tears from their eyes and took refuge on each other's shoulders as they recalled happier times.
Brothers Stephen and John Widner had been friends with Cody Carter since kindergarten; John and Cody had written a "country rap" song during math class Monday, they said.
Cody, a sophomore, wanted to become an EMT/firefighter, according to his obituary. He enjoyed playing guitar, fishing, four-wheeling and shooting his Airsoft gun. He loved animals, especially his horse, his cat, Cupcake, and his dog, Fabel.
"He was like a big teddy bear, who looked out for everyone," John Widner said. "It won't be the same without him. He was a brother to us."
Cody and Micalah were best friends, an almost inseparable pair, classmate Anthony Eartly said. In warmer weather, Anthony, Cody and Micalah would walk home after school, head to a diner for a soda, then hang out at one of their houses.
Micalah, who played the oboe and clarinet, was in the school band and color guard. She planned to go to college — though the thought of doing her own dishes worried her a bit — and study robotic engineering.
"She was a great kid," Micalah's father, Michael Sembach, said of his only child as he stood on his front porch Tuesday with tears in his eyes. "I don't know what else to say right now. She was in band. She came home on time. She was a great kid."
Matthew Bailey — who moved to Wilmington two years ago and was nicknamed "Lil Man" — enjoyed playing baseball, bow hunting and riding bikes whenever possible, family members said. A prankster who liked the rapper Mac Miller, the high school freshman was described as "fun, hysterical and cool" by his cousin Blake Geiss.
Cheyenne had attended Wilmington High School in the past, but was being home schooled this year, administrators said. Her aunt Kim Fender said she didn't see her niece often, but the last time she did was about a year ago when the teen was visiting her grandmother in downstate Altamont. She said Cheyenne was "a cute, cute baby" and had grown into an outgoing young woman.
She learned of the accident when her sister-in-law called Tuesday morning with the news.
"She was just crying and crying, and she didn't know exactly what happened," she said.
Wilmington Mayor Marty Orr said the town will pull together to help the families heal.
"We'll cope. That's the beauty of Wilmington," he said. "We'll lean on each other . . . But there will always be a piece missing."
Chicago Tribune reporters Liam Ford, Angie Leventis Lourgos, Christy Gutowski, Ashley Rueff, Stacy St. Clair and freelance reporter Dennis Sullivan contributed to this report.
©2013 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services