CINCINNATI — A car carrying five teenagers went airborne as it sped over railroad tracks in northeast Ohio early Sunday and crashed, killing the 18-year-old driver hours before his high school graduation and two of his passengers, the Ohio State Highway Patrol said.
The other two passengers, one of them also an impending graduate, were hospitalized.
Less than 13 hours after the crash, Brunswick High School students left empty seats covered with flowers at their graduation ceremony to remember driver Jeffrey Chaya and Kevin Fox, who was critically injured.
“It was very sad,” Superintendent Michael Mayell said after the commencement ceremony at the University of Akron. “There were a lot of tears.”
The 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier was traveling at a high speed just after midnight when Chaya lost control in Columbia Township, troopers at the Elyria post said. The car went airborne and off the right side of the roadway, then swerved across the left side of the road, hit a ditch and tree, then flipped over, according to the troopers’ report.
Chaya, a senior football player, and two passengers, 17-year-old Blake Bartchak and 16-year-old Lexi Poerner, were killed, the patrol said.
Fox, a back-seat passenger, was thrown from the car into a ditch, troopers said. He was flown to Cleveland Metro Health Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition. Fox, 18, also was scheduled to graduate Sunday.
The fifth person in the car, identified by troopers as 17-year-old Julia Romito, was taken to Southwest General Hospital, which wouldn’t release information on her.
Fox and Chaya were called during the commencement, which included a moment of silence and comments about the tragic accident, Mayell said. More than 600 students graduated Sunday.
Grief counselors were available to meet with students at the high school later in the day, and a memorial service was being held Sunday evening at a church.
“We want to allow the families to grieve in peace, and do whatever we can to get through this very tragic situation,” Mayell said.
Troopers were still investigating the crash Sunday. They said the only confirmed factor was unsafe speed, although they were still calculating the car’s estimated speed.
Mayell has known Poerner’s family for years, and said the students who were killed were well known at school, taking part in school activities and volunteering.
“They were very popular students, very well-liked,” Mayell said.
“We’ve always been a very tight-knit community,” he said. “It’s one of those things that happens that I just don’t get.”
Chaya, a wide receiver on the Brunswick High football team, had posted Saturday on his Twitter account: “Weird to think graduation is tomorrow time does fly big time.”
On Saturday, graduating seniors at another northeast Ohio high school wore special red and black ribbons as a sign of unity and remembrance in the aftermath of the Feb. 27 Chardon school shootings that killed three students and wounded two others.