EDEN — Three people were killed in a single-vehicle accident on U.S. Highway 70, at milepost 327 last Friday.
According to Arizona Department of Public Safety, a van with seven high school students, one student of Eastern Arizona College and an adult male driver was traveling eastbound when, at about 10 p.m., the vehicle crossed the centerline into the westbound lane, left the roadway and subsequently rolled over.
Three of the high school students were ejected from the vehicle and succumbed to their injuries. The five other students and the adult driver received non-life-threatening injuries.
Cause of the rollover is still under investigation, but DPS said impairment is not believed to be a factor.
Kris McBride, spokesman for Eastern Arizona College, said the victims were part of the GIFT program — a studies program in which high school students receive college credit.
“As many in our community are aware, the three fatal victims in the collision are a 16-year-old male from Thatcher, a 16-year-old male from Fort Thomas, and a 17-year-old male from Duncan. Because these students are minors, EAC will not release their names,” McBride said in a prepared statement.
DPS also said it would not release the victims’ names, referring inquiries to McBride.
“The health and welfare of our students, faculty and staff are a priority to EAC. At this time, the cause of this incident is still under investigation and EAC is working with the Arizona Department of Public Safety,” McBride said.
“We know this news is difficult to process and that it affects many members of our community. Anyone in need of immediate support is encouraged to contact EAC’s Counseling Department at 928-651-2889. A 24-hour crisis hotline is also available at 1-866-495-6735 (TTY/TDY: 711). Additional resources will be available at area high schools.”
Over the weekend, the community gathered to mourn in a pair of events.
On Saturday, Joshua Whitaker, a local teen from Thatcher, orchestrated a truck drive from Pima High School to Meg’s Place in Fort Thomas in honor of one of the victims.
“My heart hurts, we lost an amazing, genuine kid. He brought joy into so many lives. (He) and I never got the Mount Graham cruise we hoped for. There’s love for trucks and then there’s Mason’s love for trucks. This cruise means so much to so many people he knew. He just deserves this,” Whitaker said.
The drive began at 4 p.m. Saturday and older trucks were encouraged to participate in the drive as one of the victims was an enthusiast for older model trucks.
Sunday evening, First Southern Baptist Church of Thatcher held a candlelight vigil the victims.
Candles were given to anyone who came to pray, reflect or share stories, and prayer teams were on hand to help out in a time of sorrow.
“We wanted to offer our community a place if they needed prayer or needed to come together,” said Senior Pastor Dustin Willey. “We’re just here for whoever wants to come in and pray. Maybe they just want to come in and sit and pray by themselves; they’re welcome to do so. Maybe they’re having a hard time, and we want them to know that they’re not alone, that we’re here for them if they need us.
“It affects all of us,” he continued, “and it’s not just the boys (lost in the rollover); there’s been a lot of tragedy in our community the last couple of weeks.”
It was the third fatal accident on U.S. Highway 70 in Graham County in February.
On Feb. 1, in Bylas, a passenger vehicle traveling westbound crossed the centerline and collided with a semitruck.
That crash killed two in the passenger vehicle and the driver of the truck. A third person in the passenger vehicle was flown from the scene to Tucson Medical Center with undisclosed injuries.
On Sunday, Feb. 9, also in Bylas, a truck was traveling westbound crossed the centerline and collided head-on with another truck.
The crash killed the driver of the second truck, an off-duty El Paso, Texas, law enforcement officer. A female in the second truck and the male driver of the first truck were both flown to Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson for undisclosed injuries.
Three crowdfunding campaigns have been established to help the families of teens.
GoFundMe: In Memory of Kade Nelson
GoFundMe: Live Like Mason
GoFundMe: Love for Emmett
David Bell contributed to this report.