School holds vigil for students killed in crash

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By Tom Wilmoth

    They embraced, they hugged, they cried.


    And they raised their hands in unity.
    This has been a week for Staunton River High School, and the entire community, to come together.
    Several hundred students gathered around the flagpole at Staunton River High School Friday morning to remember two of their classmates who died in an accident Wednesday.
    Students and staff began gathering well before 8:30 a.m. and continued to move off their arriving buses and around the circle for the next 30 minutes.
    Some students brought flowers and laid them at the flagpole, next to photos of Jacob Henry Baird, 17, of Thaxton and  Katie Thurston, 16, of Vinton, both students at the  school  who  died   in  the accident. Two other students—Shawn Hall, 19, of Vinton, and Gradon Lewis Graybill, 18, of Blue Ridge—were also injured in the accident that occurred about four miles west of the school on Va. 24.
    Friday’s vigil is just one of many ways students, staff and the entire Staunton River High School community have been coming together to support the families of the students, and one another, as the deal with the tragedy.
    And even before the sting of this tragedy had a chance to begin healing, more bad news hit the school. Sunday evening Ashley Brooke Barton, 17, of Moneta, also a student at Staunton River, died in another accident on Va. 24.
    A sense of community was needed more than ever.
    “We’re all here for each other,” stated SRHS senior Logan Merrill about the way the community has supported the school. “It’s pretty incredible to watch.”
    Logan said Jacob Baird was “just one of those people it’s a privilege to know.”
    “I still find myself walking down the hallway looking for him,” Logan said of his friend.
    Logan said Jacob was always looking out for others. “He was so concerned about how you were doing,” Logan said.
    Logan believes Jacob and Katie would have loved to see the turnout for Friday’s vigil at the flagpole, and how people in the community have come together. He said SRHS alumni from as far back as 30 years ago have been reaching out to the current students to offer support. “We are that close-knit of a community,” he said.
    Logan said losing two classmates has been difficult on the student body. “It’s a very eerie atmosphere,” he said. “It’s going to be a long road back to a sense of normal.”
    He said Jacob had a bright future ahead of him and had just taken the ACT tests for college.
    Taylor Tester, a junior at the school, said teachers helped students cope on Wednesday as news spread about the deaths of Jacob and Katie.
    “I’m very impressed with our school and how we came together,” Taylor said.
    She said Katie, a junior classmate, had always been there for her. “It’s been really upsetting for all of us,” Taylor said. “She was just a really great person. … If you needed her, she would be there for you.”
    Taylor said her class learned about the accident during first period on Wednesday, after a classmate received a text message. Not long after that, teachers were given a statement to read to the students about their classmates’ deaths.
    “It’s really tough to know you’re never going to see them again,” Taylor said of Jacob and Katie. “It’s really emotionally draining. You just want to be there for everybody else. You just want to stay strong.”
    Staunton River HS Principal Michelle Morgan said the school has given students a number of opportunities to express what they’re feeling, from Friday’s vigil to putting up a memory wall and banner. Many students and staff were wearing ribbons Friday—one was being used as a way to raise money for the families of Jacob and Katie.
    Morgan said after learning about the accident the school’s crisis team was put in place and “a very difficult statement” was written for the teachers to read to the students. That took place about 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, less than two hours after the accident had actually occurred. “We all found out about the tragedy together,” she said.
    And the school also continues to reach out to the other students injured in the accident.
    “We are hopeful that Shawn will recover,” Morgan said of one of the other students involved in the accident who remains in the hospital. She has focused much of her energy into helping the SRHS students and the families of those who lost their children.
    “I’m very proud of my students,” she said of how they’ve come together, also praising the school staff and entire Staunton River community.
    Morgan said the school had received numerous messages of support, both from Bedford County’s other two high schools as well as from schools throughout the region. “We’re very grateful for that.”
    Both Katie and Jacob were the kind of students teachers loved to have in the classroom, Morgan said.
    Katie was “very serious about her academics” and was “loved by her classmates,” she said. “She was always very helpful to the other students.”
    She said along with SRHS, Jacob also was in the building and construction program at the Bedford Science and Technology Center, adding “that school is also hurting.”
    Morgan said Jacob lived for football.
    “He was proud to be a Golden Eagle,” she said.