GREENSBORO — With faces covered and heads bowed, hundreds of people gathered at Eastern Guilford High School on Thursday night for a candlelight vigil to support the families of the four students who died Monday night in a car wreck in Whitsett.
“This is not even close to the way I wanted to welcome you back to Eastern,” Principal Lance Sockwell told the crowd.
“We are never going to recover from the loss of these four men.”
Maurice Williams, 16, was driving north on Interstate 40/85 when the car left the road and hit a tree, according to Highway Patrol. He and three of his passengers — Sequoyah Delaney II, 16; Justin Porter, 15; and Javon Johnson-Rumley, 16 — died at the scene.
Fifteen-year-old Azaiah Howard, the fifth teenager in the 2004 Honda, survived but is hospitalized with injuries. Sockwell said Howard’s family was with him at the hospital Thursday night.
“They had him up, moving around,” Sockwell said. “He is doing well.”
All five friends had been students at Eastern Guilford, Sockwell said, though Delaney finished the school year at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown.
The families of the four formed clusters on the school football field, while students, parents and other community members gathered around the track that circles it, hushed as they waited for the vigil to begin. Most wore medical masks, as required by the school and a pending broader order by North Carolina’s governor.
Like other schools, Eastern Guilford and its campus had been closed for classes and other activities since mid-March because of the threat of COVID-19 contagion. Graduating seniors had accepted their diplomas in a lengthy drive-thru recognition ceremony, with just a few of them on campus at any given time.
But the deaths of these four teenagers brought students back together.
“It just doesn’t feel real at all,” said rising senior Nyzaja Johnson.
She and classmates Mekiah Cousin and Dorian Jackson remembered the teenagers for their long-lasting friendships, for their caring and loyalty, and for the times spent together: basketball games, a New Year’s Eve sleepover, days at the pool, with Williams the first one in and the last one out.
During the vigil, a member of each family walked with a lighted candle out to the track, passing their flame to the encircling crowd.
“Things of this earth confuse us and trouble us,” the Rev. Josh Parrish said during the ceremony. “We are thankful that on this night, we can see the support of this community.”
As she walked back to her car after the vigil, Tameka Williams, the mother of Maurice Williams, noted how her loved ones tended to her. If one person let go of her hand, another slipped in to take their place.
Even with questions about the wreck not far from her mind, the vigil’s message of caring and support came through. Williams remembered the way she has seen people come together before, like when Eastern Guilford was rebuilt after it burned down in 2006.
“You can see that our community is nothing but love,” she said. “Sedalia, Eastern, the teachers, the students ... we still stick together, you know. These grounds are holy grounds. We love each other for who we are.”