By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press
GRISWOLD, Conn. (AP) _ A 16-year-old boy with a learner’s driving permit was behind the wheel in a one-car accident that killed him and three other teenagers in eastern Connecticut, police said Wednesday.
Authorities were investigating what caused the driver, identified as John Clapper, to lose control of the car and strike a tree Tuesday afternoon in Griswold, a rural town 40 miles southeast of Hartford where the deaths sent shock waves through the high school.
Connecticut state laws on teen drivers say those with learner’s permits are only allowed to have a parent, legal guardian or qualified trainer as a passenger when they’re driving.
The only surviving passenger is 16-year-old Joel Gallup, who was in the back seat of the 2007 Nissan Altima at the time of the accident, according to a state police report. He was hospitalized in critical condition.
It was unclear whether any of the passengers were wearing seat belts, according to the report.
Grief counselors were working with high school students as classes resumed Wednesday at Griswold High School.
“When five students are involved in a situation like this, it affects everybody,” Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman said in an interview. “It’s a huge loss to our community and everybody in our school and everybody in our town is feeling it right now.”
The others killed in the accident on a narrow straightaway through a wooded area were identified as 16-year-old
Sativa Cornell, 15-year-old Steven Szklarz and 16-year-old Dillon Clifford. Three died at the scene and a fourth died at a local hospital. Friends said Clapper and Cornell were dating.
Friends of the victims stopped by the accident scene Wednesday, leaving flowers and tacking a Christmas snowman ornament on the tree the car struck.
“Steve was my best friend,” said Floyd Flint, 15, who cried as he spoke at the accident site and said he didn’t go to school Wednesday because it would have been too painful. “It’s never going to be the same. Anything.”
Clapper received his learner’s permit in August and had not been issued a license, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The governor and state lawmakers in 2008 made teen driver laws tougher after several fatal accidents involving young people.
The crash occurred as Connecticut marked Teen Safe Driving Week, and a day after transportation officials announced that fatal crashes in the state were at a 12-year low among 16- and 17-year-old drivers.
The car was registered to Gina Pelletier of Griswold, who victims’ friends said was the mother of Cornell. The police report said Cornell was sitting in the passenger side of the front seat at the time of the accident. A woman who answered the phone at Pelletier and Cornell’s address declined to comment.
Griswold has a population of about 12,000 and only 750 students attend the high school.
Students said the normally noisy hallways of Griswold High School were silent Wednesday, and many students left early because of the sadness.
“You could hear a pin drop,” said 16-year-old Jessica Drager, who was friends with Cornell and was a neighbor of Clapper. “To lose five people at once is just so shocking. They were such good people. They would do anything for you.”
Friends of the teens also shared their grief Tuesday night and Wednesday on Facebook, where nearly 1,800 people were following a memorial page by Wednesday.
Several changed their profile pictures to Griswold High’s green “G” or its Wolverines logo, sent condolences to the families or shared memories of being on sports teams with some of the teens.
Jim Pendergast, a 38-year-old home contractor, said his 16-year-old daughter Samantha knows at least a couple of the victims. He said she drove by the crash site as she returned from her great-grandmother’s funeral Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a sad thing. You don’t want to lose any kids, let alone four,” Pendergast said inside a convenience store.
Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the crash.
“We’ll examine everything and anything to determine what happened,” state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said.
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)