PINEVILLE — Lt. Col. Barry Tanner, one of the instructors in the Air Force JROTC program at Bell County High School, was getting cadets in line to march in a Christmas parade Saturday when he noticed that three of them were missing, which wasn't like them.
He called the home of twins Jessica Nicole "Niki" Ingram and Wesley Ingram, 16, of Pineville, and was told the teens were running late because Wesley couldn't find his cap, but they were on their way with two other friends.
But they didn't make it, and he found out why after the parade.
"It was a bitter cold day and it got colder" with that news, Tanner said.
The Ingrams, along with Daniel Earl Campbell Smith, 15, of Blackmont, and Jonathan Miracle, 18, of Miracle, were killed in a car wreck on their way to the parade. On Monday, the school of about 880 students struggled to cope.
Some wiped away tears as they signed a memorial banner taped over a glass-fronted trophy case outside the cafeteria, then hugged and talked quietly about the friends they'd lost.
"They were amazing. They were the kind of people you really did need as friends," said Anthony Saylor, 16.
Miracle, who graduated in May but remained close to people at the school, was driving the other three to Middlesboro when he lost control of his 2007 Toyota Yaris and it crossed into oncoming lanes of US 25E, hitting a 2008 Peterbilt tractor-trailer coal truck.
The twins and Daniel died at the scene of the crushing impact, which happened shortly before 1 p.m. inPineville. Emergency workers rushed Miracle to Pine ville Community Hospital, but he died there.
Paul Wilson, emergency manager for Bell County, said it was one of the worst wrecks emergency workers said they had seen.
The road was slick at the time. The crash came just after a snow squall with high winds moved through; two other wrecks occurred nearby at the same time, Wilson said.
State police said all four teens were wearing safety belts. Drugs and alcohol are not suspected as factors in the crash.
Niki, Wesley and Daniel were involved in the JROTC program at the high school. Miracle had been in the pro-gram for four years before graduating, and he was attending Southeast Community and Technical College in Middlesboro, said Tanner.
The four had attended Bell County's hard-fought win Friday night over Boyle County to earn a spot in the state Class 4A high-school football championship this weekend, and then spent the night together at the twins' house in Pineville, Tanner said.
Friends said Niki was vivacious and outgoing, a talented artist. She and her brother, who liked computers, could always put a smile on your face, they said.
"You could look at her and just laugh," said Teresa Cross, 16.
Daniel was described as energetic and friendly, someone who could be laid back with his friends, but also dedicated. It takes some young people a while to learn the "yes sir, no sir" discipline of JROTC, but Daniel got it the first day, Tanner said.
Daniel planned to join the Marines after school.
Miracle was a sweet, loving person — a young man with a "heart of gold," Tanner said.
"Every time he'd see you, he'd go up and shake your hand," said Quinton Fletcher, 17, who is in the JROTC program.
It wasn't surprising that Miracle was the one giving the other three a ride to the parade, Tanner said.
"These were good kids," he said. "I would have been happy to have any of the four as my own children."
The football team's trip to the state championship seemed an afterthought Monday. There will be time to think about that later, said Susan Brock, an assistant principal at the high school.
Tom Greer, another assistant principal, said there will be a moment of silence to honor the four students before the game. Football players may also wear a tribute on their uniforms, he said.
It was the second fatal wreck this year involving multiple students from the high school. In January, two current and two former students were killed when their car ran off a road and caught fire.
"I've heard several comments that it seems like we had just gotten past that ... and now we have to go through it again," said Brock.
There were about 10 counselors available for students to talk to Monday, some from schools and some volunteers from the community, said Angela Allen, a counselor at the high school.
No one was checking hall passes. Any student who wanted to talk to a counselor could.
Some wanted to talk about how they could face going to class and not seeing their friends. Many wondered why such tragedies happen.
"Kids like answers, but sometimes there's just not an answer," Allen said. "I dreaded today because there's not a lot you can say to help them feel better. Unfortunately, it just takes time."