There were long, comforting hugs. Muffled sobs and shared boxes of tissues. And prayers that ached for four teenage girls who died in a car crash Monday night and a fifth, sole survivor hospitalized with burns.
Hundreds packed the pews Tuesday night at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Gretna for a memorial service that aimed to provide some small measure of solace to a grieving community.
“No words can totally comfort us, no words can totally explain such a tragedy,” said the Rev. Matthew Gutowski, the church’s pastor.
Gretna students, parents and others from this community of 5,000 woke up to horrifying and heartbreaking news Tuesday morning: Five teenagers from Gretna High School had been involved in a fiery and deadly car crash in Sarpy County late Monday night.
Four girls died at the scene. A fifth is being treated at a burn unit in a Lincoln hospital. All are believed to be 15 or 16 years old.
“It’s the worst thing that can happen to a community,” Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Riley said.
At the rosary and memorial service Tuesday night, Gutowski and the Rev. Gary Werling of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gretna said the loss of four lives is hard to comprehend. But they asked attendees to shower support on the girls’ families and friends, to pray for healing for the girl who remains hospitalized and to trust in faith and community to provide hope in the dark days ahead.
“Accidents happen; we know that,” Werling said. “But when the reality hits us square, it’s hard to take.”
Church officials allowed members of the media to attend the service.
Earlier in the day, students laid brightly wrapped bouquets of flowers at the crash site and on cars parked at Gretna High. Counselors were available at the school for students and staff who needed to talk, and a link on the Gretna district’s website offered parents and students resources on death, grief and mental health.
Counselors and local pastors will be at the school again Wednesday, starting at 8 a.m.
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Mayor Jim Timmerman said Gretna may be a growing suburban community, but it still retains a bit of a small-town feel. He called on community members to unite around the families who lost daughters at such a young age.
“The most important thing right now is the community just needs to show their support and prayers for the families and the young girls involved,” he said.
He paused for a moment.
“Sorry, I get a little teared-up just thinking about it,” Timmerman said. “The community has to stand behind the parents right now.”
Gretna Campus Life, a faith-based group that meets with students from Gretna High and two middle schools, also invited mourners to come together to pray or talk Tuesday night.
Messages of condolence poured in from across the metro area, as school leaders, athletic groups and parents rallied around Gretna and lamented what some called every parent’s worst fear.
First responders who arrived at the scene called it “tragic.”
“The worst one I’ve worked,” tweeted Sarpy County Sheriff’s Deputy Lindsay Varona.
The one-vehicle crash occurred just west of the intersection of 180th Street and Platteview Road, according to Capt. Chris Culler of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities have yet to publicly release the names of the five girls, and pastors Tuesday night said they would also refrain from using their names, although they said many in the community undoubtedly know the victims. Culler said authorities may need to use DNA and dental records in the identification process.
Monday, deputies were called to the scene at 11:12 p.m. and found a Ford Fusion engulfed in flames.
Investigators determined that the Ford was eastbound on Platteview Road when it left the roadway for an unknown reason and struck the end of a guardrail, Culler said.
The vehicle continued down into a ravine and caught fire. The cause of the crash is unknown but under investigation.
The four teenagers were pronounced dead at the scene. The fifth teen was taken to Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy with burns before being transferred to St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln.
A spokeswoman for St. Elizabeth said no information was being released about the surviving girl.
The crash occurred in a rural location in unincorporated Sarpy County about 3 miles east of Nebraska Crossing Outlets.
Monday night’s crash happened in almost the exact same location as a December 2006 crash that killed Gretna High School seniors Jacob Hurd and Kyle Lavigne.
In that 2006 crash, driver Matthew Robinson was driving 101 mph, heading east on Platteview Road just west of 180th Street, when he crashed. Robinson had been drinking.
Robinson’s case was handled in juvenile court, where he admitted responsibility and received probation.
Hurd, Lavigne and Robinson were all 17 at the time.
Sarpy County Board member Jim Warren said the asphalt stretch of a rural road attracts its fair share of speeders. But the crash site isn’t known as a particular trouble spot, he said.
“I don’t know what the cause of the accident was, but regardless, it’s a tragic, sad event,” he said. “There’s a real heaviness — you can feel it — over the city of Gretna.”
World-Herald staff writer Jeffrey Robb and Gretna Breeze editor Rachel George contributed to this report.