North Bryan resident Brenda France was shocked when she heard on March 13 that the memorial crosses erected at an accident site on Hwy. 119 were gone.
The crosses were placed almost a year ago, when three North Bryan teenage girls were killed on their way to Bryan County High School (BCHS). That morning, what should have been a normal school day ended in tragedy when the car the girls were traveling in crossed the middle line and collided with an on coming pick-up truck.
France is the grandmother of two of the girls who died – Heather and Melissa Arthur. The third victim was Laura Cobb.
For the past year, the missing three cross memorial was located on the curve; just two miles past BCHS on Hwy. 119. The memorial was erected shortly after the fatal crash that killed Cobb and the Arthur sisters. The memorial has since served as a place for friends and family to leave gifts, notes, and flowers throughout the past year.
At the same time on Thursday that France was learning about the missing crosses, the phone began to ring with numerous calls of concern at the home of Deana Cruz. Cruz and her daughter, eighteen year old Heather Cruz, are very close with the Arthur family; they were also shocked and immediately went to the curve to see for themselves.
"We couldn’t believe the crosses were gone," said Cruz. "My Heather was best friends with the girls. She helped us make the crosses and told us their favorite colors − the colors we painted each cross. Just having the crosses has helped Heather and the girls’ other friends grieve and remember."
The Cruz and France families set out to find the crosses. After several phone calls and the assistance of officials with the City of Pembroke the crosses were located at the Pembroke Department of Transportation Office. According to Heather Cruz, some of the silk flowers that were placed in the ground around each cross were located in the ditch across from the curve where the crosses were originally placed.
"My whole family has been so distraught," said France. "The crosses are important to us. They are important because they represent my granddaughters Heather and Melissa, and their friend Laura. I don’t want to ever forget them. They are also important because this is such a dangerous curve. The crosses hopefully remind people to slow down and drive carefully. Hopefully, it will make the curve here on 119 safer for everyone who drives on it."
According to Brenda Howard, at the state transportation department’s Jesup office, the crosses were removed because they were in the right of way.
"We are very sensitive to this issue, and we wish we could allow it," Howard said. "But if the crosses are placed too close to the highway they can be a distraction to other motorist and potentially cause another accident. We already know this is a dangerous curve."
France, her husband Jesse, the Cruzs, the Arthur girls’ mother Sherri, along with Laura Cobb’s grandparents Roy and Terry Vangiller, all gathered at the accident site to replace the crosses; this time further back in the field.
According to Deana Cruz, the department of transportation advised them that the crosses needed to be set back at least 45 feet from the center yellow line. To be on the safe side the Cruz’s placed the crosses approximately 50 feet back. The families received verbal and written permission from the landowners, Danny and Tiffany Warnell, to place the crosses in the field where the Warnell family has farmed for generations.
"We are so thankful to the Warnells for allowing us to do this," said France. "The people of our community have been so supportive of our family during this devastating year."
The families still remain concerned about the dangerous speeds drivers attempt while driving on the curve at the accident scene. Approaching the accident site one can see caution signage recommending 40 miles per hour on the curve. According to neighboring residents many drivers attempt the curve at much higher speeds.
"How many people have to die before they do something about the speeding," said Sherri Arthur, who lost both of her children in the collision. "There have been so many deaths on this curve."
The driver of the vehicle carrying the three girls, Tam Duc Le, 18, survived the accident. Le was taken by Lifestar Helicopter to Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, where he spent five weeks in a coma as a result of the injuries.
Last week, Le, who is charged in deaths of three of his classmates, was arraigned in Bryan County Superior Court in Pembroke.
He was arraigned on three counts of vehicular homicide in the first degree, two counts of reckless driving, and one count each of failure to maintain lane and driving too fast for conditions. Through his attorney Le entered a plea of "not guilty" and waived a formal arraignment.
Due to Le’s medical condition, he was not arrested in the matter until Sept. 12, 2007. He has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest. According to his mother, Jennifer Le, he is still suffering from complications and pain from the accident.
According to Bryan County Sherriff’s Department Captain Mike Maxwell, on the day of the accident Le lost control of the red 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier he was driving as he and the three girls were traveling south on Hwy. 119, approximately 2.3 miles north of BCHS. As the Chevy Cavalier came out of a sharp curve, it crossed the center line directly into the path of Robin Wilkes of Ellabell. Wilkes was traveling northbound in a Ford F-250 pickup truck. She was taken by ambulance to East Georgia Regional Medical Center in Statesboro, where she was treated and released the following day. Both the Cavalier and the Ford F-250 were totaled. Due to the force of the impact they had to be cut apart in order to be towed away.
The accident occurred as the teens were on their way to school. All the passengers of the Cavalier were students at Bryan County High School. Heather Arthur was in the 10th grade. Melissa Arthur, Laura Cobb and Le were in the 11th grade at the time of the accident. All four were wearing seatbelts, Maxwell said.
No trial date was set for Le. Each count of first-degree vehicular homicide is punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Atlantic Circuit Judge Robert Russell presided over the arraignment.
Family and friends of the three girls will be holding a candle light memorial at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 21, at the site of the accident. Community members are invited to attend. Participants are asked to park on Old Patrick School Road and to be aware of traffic while crossing Hwy. 119. Pembroke Police Department and Bryan County Sherriff’s Department officers will be on hand to insure safety.
According to Heather Cruz, friends of Melissa Arthur and Laura Cobb are currently seeking permission from officials at BCHS to place two empty chairs at the graduation ceremony this May for the class of 2008, to honor their two friends who would have walked the stage with them and received their diplomas.