2 students die in Hilton Head wreck on way to school Friday

rlurye@islandpacket.comMarch 28, 2014 

By 6 p.m. Friday, mourners filled almost every seat in the Hilton Head High School gymnasium.

Cards the size of tables and colorful prayer flags were covered with words of regret, comfort and sorrow following a morning car crash that claimed the lives of two students and left two others gravely injured.

Earlier in the day, about 400 students went home early after hearing the news.

Many of them returned to Wilborn Road for Friday night's vigil to find their Seahawk family had grown in numbers -- students and staff were joined by parents, Beaufort County School District officials, church leaders, even a lacrosse team from Carolina Forest High School in Myrtle Beach, who remained to pay their respects even though their match was canceled.

Together, the community prayed for injured students Ramon Morales, 17, and Michelle Alvares, 16.

They mourned the loss of seniors Cesar Herrera, 17, and Cory Rocha, 18, who were killed when Morales' car struck a tree Friday morning as the four drove to school.

Morales was driving on Dillon Road toward U.S. 278 shortly before 7 a.m. when his red 2011 Ford Focus ran off the right side of road, hit a culvert and went airborne, according to S.C. Highway Patrol senior trooper Hannah Wimberly. The car struck a tree and came to rest in the parking lot of a shopping center at 21 Dillon Road.

None of the four students was wearing a seat belt, Wimberly said.

Morales was ejected from the vehicle, as were Herrera and Rocha, who were pronounced dead at the scene, according to Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen and Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster.

Morales and Alvares were airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, Wimberly said.

The Highway Patrol is investigating the wreck.

The hospital could not release information about their conditions because they are under 18, a spokesman said.

However, Beaufort County School superintendent Jeff. Moss said he has been told they are likely to pull through.

"I think the district is all in mourning," he said, "and it is always an extremely sad situation when you see the life of a young adult and the possibilities before those students stripped away."

More than 30 counselors were sent to the school Friday to meet with students who wanted to talk, according to Board of Education Chairman Bill Evans, who is a former Hilton Head High principal.

"It's difficult" he said. "... you can never really wrap your head around this."

Evans announced the accident to the Board of Education shortly after the first day of a two-day workshop began Friday morning. After the board observed a moment of silence, members joined hands with district staff while board member Michael Rivers said a prayer for the students and their families.

Friday evening, local pastors and school and district officials lead prayers and offered condolences for the families, who did not speak at the vigil.

One pastor, Ed Vernoy of Member Care at Community Bible Church in Beaufort, urged those gathered to accept their feelings of sadness and anger but not be ruled by them.

"Some of you may have a lot of questions and a lot of anger, and our first reaction may be to say to God, 'Why did you let this happen?'" Vernoy said. "Put your faith in God. He is not cruel. He is love. And don't be afraid to ask for help."

Bluffton Middle School counselor David Johnson, a former staff member at Hilton Head Island High, said he hopes the families will find peace in the strength of their community.

"We stand together not only in prayer," he said. "We stand together in the days, weeks, months and years to come."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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