Painted portraits honor 2 students killed in March car wreck

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJune 5, 2014 

Hilton Head Island High School graduating senior Emily Hunter created these portraits as a tribute to classmates Cesar Hererra, left, and Cory Rocha who were killed in a car accident earlier this year. At the school's graduation ceremony on June 5, 2014, the portraits were placed in the chairs the two seniors would have occupied at commencement.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

Two seniors killed in a March automobile accident were at Hilton Head Island High School's graduation in spirit. Classmates made sure of it.

Two seats were left empty for Cory Rocha, 18, and Cesar Herrera, 17, during the ceremony Thursday, and paintings of the students were placed on the chairs.

During her address to students, principal Amanda O'Nan also read from an assignment Rocha completed just days before he died.

Reflecting on his life after graduation, Rocha said of his fellow students "I would tell them how much I will miss them and bring up memories that we had and try to make it another day to remember. I would give them a bear hug and always try to stay in touch with them."

Rocha and Herrera were killed and two other students -- driver Ramon Morales, 18, and passenger Michelle Alvares, 16 -- seriously injured March 28 after the car in which they were riding struck a culvert, went airborne and struck a tree.

Both Alvares and Morales are now home from the hospital and recovering, but neither has returned to school, O'Nan said.

Senior Emily Hunter, who painted the portraits, said all students and staff have been touched by the loss. She also has painted a portrait of a student their class lost to health problems in the seventh grade.

The portraits started as a class project but quickly grew to a way to honor the students during graduation, Hunter said. Classmates soon became involved, asking her questions about the portraits, describing traits and telling her stories about the subjects she might convey in the paintings.

The students are made to look like they are sleeping, Hunter said, like they are at peace.

In May, the senior photo slideshow was also dedicated to the students, and the families were present to see the many photographs remembering their sons, O'Nan said.

Hunter said she would like to give the portraits to the families after the ceremony. She requested permission from all the families to display the portraits during graduation.

An art teacher and her class are also painting a mural of the two students in her classroom, so that the memory of Rocha and Herrera will live on.

"Students have been very passionate about these projects, and you could tell it means a lot to them," Hunter said. "This is just proving these students will not be forgotten, they were important and will be remembered."

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said his office is working closely with the S.C. Highway Patrol, but has not determined whether charges will be filed against Morales. He declined to comment further on the investigation.

"We are currently reviewing all the evidence they've gathered," Stone said. "We will come to a decision relatively soon."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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