LUSBY -- Outside a white stucco church on the rising, grassy bluff overlooking the mouth of the Patuxent River, Bob Dredger knew yesterday would be a brutal day for most of his students at Patuxent High School.
Yesterday was the day that Dredger, the school's principal, would gather with hundreds of his students and hundreds more townspeople in southern Calvert County to bury three of their own, 14, 15 and 17 years old.
They had been traveling down a winding road a mile from their school Wednesday when the eldest lost control of the shiny yellow Mustang he loved so much and swerved into the path of an oncoming U-Haul truck. The driver of the truck is in critical condition. The teen-agers never had a chance.
"These three kids had just left our parking lot three minutes earlier," said Dredger, 48. "They were laughing, joking, having fun like high school kids do, and now what's left is this grief."
That grief has hung like a stubborn morning fog over this Chesapeake Bay town, which still centers its social life on the local high school.
Coun- selors have been a fixture at the school since the accident, and so have crying students, who left a white wooden cross, notes, flowers and balloons at the crash site, in front of the skid marks and deep gouges in the asphalt. At the school, they hung black bunting over a display case dedicated to their dead friends -- Michael Vito, the driver, his girlfriend, Rachael Thomas, and 14-year-old Jacqueline Rose, Michael's stepsister.
"Dear Jacki," read a letter posted in the case, "I am writing to you to let you go. I pray that you are in peace."
'I broke down and wept'
A teacher posted this letter for Mike, as he was known: "I know that teachers aren't supposed to have favorite students, but Mike was one of my favorites. While I could never tell him that, I did tell my wife, and when three days later, I had to tell her what had happened, she completely understood why I broke down and wept."
For Rachael, one sign said simply, "I love you."
Dredger arrived at the school yesterday before the sun had fully risen, preparing for the hour he would have to climb a gentle bluff in nearby Solomons and join his students at Our Lady Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church for a funeral Mass for Mike and Jacki. At the same time, services for Rachael would be held down the road at Middleham & St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
"I've never had to deal with something of this magnitude," said Dredger. Nearly half of his 1,400 students would miss classes to go to the funerals. "What I keep telling myself and my staff is that we have to be cognizant that whatever we're dealing with here, nothing will ever match what the families are going through."
Dredger had been preparing to leave school about 3 p.m. Wednesday when he got the call. It appeared, police said, that three people killed in a car crash on Rousby Hall Road were teen-agers, almost certainly from his school.
The Patuxent Panthers girls basketball team had been en route to an away game; a boys team from the northern part of the county was headed to Patuxent. Dredger radioed the bus to return and canceled the home game. He called all teachers who had the students in their classrooms, 20 teachers in all.
"I felt like I had to be OK," Dredger says. "But by the end of the phone calls, well into Wednesday evening, I had to close my office door and turn off the lights." He sat behind his desk and cried.
At the two churches, family members, students, teachers and townspeople crammed into pews. When the pews were filled at Mike and Jacki's funeral, people flowed into two rooms in the church basement, where the funeral was televised. When those rooms were full, a couple hundred people took to the church lawn, standing quietly while the prayers and tears commenced inside. They watched as pallbearers carried two copper-colored caskets into the church, and then the tears spilled outside, too.
Hope and consolation
Dredger stood in the back of the church and listened as the priest told congregation members that they should mourn but not despair. These children, he told them, were going to heaven.
"The tears will flow and they will be helpful," said the Rev. Richard Gardner. "But our hearts will not be troubled in the way of hearts without hope."
Teachers and friends then went to the pulpit and offered eulogies. Mike was the football player and technology freak, one of the most popular guys in school. Rachael had been dating him since around Christmas, and was as thoroughly fulfilled as a 15-year-old girl can be. The two had discussed marriage; Mike had bought her a ring.
Jacki was the girl who always had a smile. She was a leader on the field hockey team, "No. 5 on the field, No. 1 in our hearts," said one girl.
Outside, hundreds of people stood through the two-hour service, which was brought to a close by a man with a deep bass voice singing "How Great Thou Art." An altar boy, a friend of Jacki and Mike, gave in to tears.
The caskets were carried to two black hearses; the parents walked behind, crying.
A four-mile procession made its way to the cemetery. Along the route, people stopped walking, turned to the hearses and put their hands over their hearts. Men took off their hats and looked downward.
Dredger returned to school after the burials. After consoling students, he said there would be a memorial service at the school tonight, and that would be the end of official attempts at closure.
After all, before the death of the students, he had 1,428 students to look out for. He still has 1,425.
"We go on," he said. "It's not as if there won't be great sadness in this school, but we go on."
Pub Date: 2/02/99