The two cars pulled to the side of the road Monday afternoon, at the corner of S.C. 9 and the road leading into and out of Lewisville Elementary School in rural Chester County, after school let out.
School buses filled with kids had just gone by. The kids waved and smiled through the windows. It was great, the afternoon, because school was over and school being over on a Monday when you are a kid is always great.
Until it isn’t.
The men, Carlton Quinton and Wayne Cherry, carried balloons and the weight of their families, because it was March 26. The women, Jane Cherry and Alice Quinton, carried pictures and the memories of their kids, because it was March 26. The kids carried what the brother and sister might look like, in their minds, because it was March 26. All walked up an embankment in this spot, to the two little crosses with the name “Hannah” on one and the name “Nicholas” on the other.
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“This is the place,” said Carlton Quinton, a fireplug of a guy who somehow manages a smile at a spot that has seen such sorrow.
He smiles because he loved, and still loves, his little girl.
Wayne Cherry, somehow, chuckles, thinking of his little boy.
“A great little rascal he was,” said Wayne Cherry.
The intersection is where, five years ago to the day, at almost the same time – right after the elementary school let out – that a logging truck plowed into the minivan Alice Quinton was driving. Hannah Quinton, 9 years old, a cheerleader and girlie girl who had rode a bicycle with her training wheels on it nearby just two days before, died. Nicholas Cherry, age 7, who had eaten with his family at McAlister’s Deli the day before, and cut up as boys do and got a reprimand from a loving dad as boys will, died, too.
Somehow, Alice Quinton survived. Taylor Cherry, 5 at the time, and Timmy Quinton, 7 then, also survived their injuries.
But Nicholas and Hannah did not. A full 40 tons of wood and truck, 80,000 pounds, was too much.
“Nicholas, he loved to fish, and he was learning to hunt with me – he loved the outdoors,” said Wayne Cherry, Nicholas’ father. “He was a good little ol’ boy. All boy.”
Carlton Quinton, Hannah’s father, remembered the last sleepover his daughter had at their Fort Lawn home, where he was kicked out of a houseful of girls because girls need girl time, and dads are boys and, therefore, must go.
“They just had a blast,” Carlton Quinton said. “She was all girl.”
Until that terrible afternoon after school.
Somehow, the families have soldiered on over five years and two sets of court hearings and all those birthdays and Christmases without Hannah and Nicholas. The families put benches at the elementary school, where the kids’ names and legacies will remain forever.
And those tiny crosses, they remain.
The speed limit out on S.C. 9 in front of the schools, months after the crash, was lowered from 55 mph to 45. More signs were put up for the school zone.
“After my baby died,” said Alice Quinton.
The Quintons have, for years, been faithful members of a group called “Compassionate Friends,” which is made up of parents who have lost kids. That group, and their faith, has helped them survive.
The Cherry family, with strong community and church support, too, has also made it through five long years.
The driver of the truck, George Rogers, was acquitted on charges of reckless homicide after a trial in Chester in 2009, where authorities alleged the truck was unsafe. None of the family members were happy then, and they are not happy now, about the not-guilty verdicts.
The families both filed lawsuits against the driver, the trucking company and the owner of the logs. An appeal of that pending lawsuit as it pertains to the log owner remains unresolved in the S.C. Court of Appeals, said Brad Jordan and Dale Dove, lawyers for the Quinton and Cherry families.
Yet before going to that spot Monday, five years after the crash, the Quinton parents and Cherry parents ate together and talked about a word that both Wayne Cherry and Carlton Quinton used: forgiveness.
Even, said the men, for George Rogers the truck driver.
At his rural southern Chester County home Monday, the five-year anniversary of the crash, Rogers the truck driver declined to be interviewed about the incident.
But back at the spot where it happened, the families did talk about what happened when the kids died.
They talked of the how old the kids would be – Nicholas would be 12; Hannah would be 14.
“We sure think about what lives those kids lost – their futures,” said Carlton Quinton.
So all of them, on top of the little rise at the northwest corner of the intersection, where the crosses stand five years later and where a sign thanking the community for its generosity stood for years until some villain took it, held balloons Monday at about the same time and just yards from the spot where it all happened.
Carlton Quinton counted: “1, 2, 3,” he said.
Everybody released those balloons. Carlton and Alice and Timmy Quinton. Wayne and Jane and Taylor Cherry.
The kids, Timmy and Taylor, were so quiet. Their moms were, too.
Carlton Quinton called out into the sky as the balloons raced southeast on a wind that kicked up, seemingly out of nowhere: “Love you, Hannah!”
Wayne Cherry said, right after Quinton’s words echoed no more, “Love you, Nicholas.”
The balloons sped southeast, the same direction Alice Quinton was turning five years earlier, when school had just ended and all those kids had such bright futures – before a truck hit them, and two futures ended right there.