South Mecklenburg High School teacher Shari Cloud can’t seem to shake the image from her head.
There is Thomas Luciano, dancing and smiling on the Jumbotron just before the opening ceremonies of the statewide Health Occupation Students of America competition in Greensboro.
A couple of days later, Luciano would be standing proudly with his teammates, accepting the first-place medal for the parliamentary procedure competition – a first for South Meck.
“He played a vital role in helping the team place first in the state,” said Cloud, adding that Luciano was “on top of the world” when he found out he’d be continuing to the national competition in Orlando, Fla., in June.
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But on Saturday afternoon, Luciano died in a car accident on his way to the beach for spring break.
“The world is a little colder, a bit less friendly since Thomas passed away,” said South Meck’s senior naval science instructor Capt. Mike Shewchuk, who taught Luciano on the school’s JROTC team.
Cloud said she last saw Luciano around 11:30 a.m. Saturday after the school’s HOSA team arrived back via charter bus from the state competition.
By 3 p.m., Luciano and three of his friends were back on the road.
“So excited to go to the beach with my 3 favorite people Mary Elizabeth, Luciano and Rolland,” fellow passenger Madison Rathburn tweeted.
Authorities said Luciano, 16, was a backseat passenger in a 1993 Chevrolet SUV driven by 17-year-old Mary Elizabeth Schultze on northbound Interstate 77 between Coltharp and Gold Hill roads in Fort Mill, S.C.
Around 4:15 p.m., Schultze changed lanes and the vehicle went out of control and overturned, according to S.C. Highway Patrol.
Luciano was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown from the SUV. He died at the scene.
Authorities said Rathburn was in the front seat beside Schultze, while 18-year-old Rolland Calhoun rode beside Luciano in the backseat.
The three who were injured, all of whom are South Meck students, were wearing seat belts.
Investigators don’t believe speed was a factor in the crash. The wreck remains under investigation, and authorities didn’t say whether the driver will face charges.
‘Heave is shining brighter’
Early Sunday, a group of South Mecklenburg students mourned Luciano’s death and celebrated his life by spray-painting the school’s two rocks.
On the larger of the two rocks, students honored Luciano’s service in the South Mecklenburg High JROTC.
“We salute you chief,” reads the rock beneath a spray-painted Navy emblem.
On another side of the rock, students wrote personal messages to Luciano before signing with their handprint.
“I am so grateful I got to spend your last day with you. I love you,” said one message, signed by Rathburn.
“Heaven is shining brighter now,” wrote another.
One student vowed Luciano’s death would not be in vain.
“You saved 1,000,000 lives (because) now we all promise to wear a seatbelt,” wrote the student.
Students painted the smaller of the two rocks black, with simply “RIP Luciano” on one side and “You will be missed” on the other.
Students also laid a number of bouquets at the makeshift memorial in front of the high school, as well as a box of Bojangles’ Famous Chicken & Biscuits.
Luciano was well-liked among students and faculty, Cloud said Sunday.
“He was always so friendly. He always had a smile on his face,” she said. “The beautiful smile he has – it just exudes his personality. It epitomizes who he was. He just loved life.”
Added Shewchuk: “Those of us who knew him well will remember him every day for his ready smile and kindness. In his memory, let us all try to be nicer to one another.”