Area families remember children one year after tragic accident

A memorial sign and flowers for the children of the Cherry and Quinton families remains standing at the corner of S.C. 9 and Lewisville High School Road in Chester County.
A memorial sign and flowers for the children of the Cherry and Quinton families remains standing at the corner of S.C. 9 and Lewisville High School Road in Chester County.

RICHBURG -- Nicholas Cherry's cabinet holds the snowglobe he bought at the Biltmore House on a family vacation. His favorite book, "Harold and the Purple Crayon," is also there, as is the hunting outfit he had worn only a few times.

Hannah Quinton's cabinet bears the stuffed dog she slept with, the certificate she won at school for map reading and a picture of her with her little brother, Timmy.

Numerous other items lie in both cases, these shrines of wood and glass, one in the Cherrys' Richburg house and the other at the Quintons' home in Fort Lawn. They honor their children, the two Lewisville Elementary School students who died March 26, 2007, in a wreck near the school.

"Sometimes, it's hard to continue to bring it up," said Hannah's father, Carlton. "Sometimes, you just want some peace. But there are other times that you don't ever want your children forgotten, and you want to shout to the world how great these kids were."

On Wednesday, one year from the day of the crash, two more memorials will be dedicated to the 7-year-old boy who shot his new BB gun once and the 9-year-old girl who was preparing to take the training wheels off her bike.

The Cherry and Quinton families purchased two benches for the Lewisville Elementary playground. Each 300-pound metal seat is painted a Lewisville color and bears the name of a child who died in the wreck.

Nicholas' bench is blue. Hannah's is gold. "In loving memory," they say.

"Some people -- and not like us because we lost a child -- they seem to want to forget and put things behind them," said Nicholas' father, Wayne. "But we'll never put it behind us because it's our child. ... I feel like it happened yesterday."

The families will hold a private memorial service at the playground Wednesday afternoon. Then, they'll go to the hill at the corner of S.C. 9 and Lewisville High School Road, the site of the crash, and bells will toll around the time the children died.

"I don't want my daughter to be forgotten," Carlton said. "For me, it's important that I do something. Rather than sit back and mourn her loss, I want to celebrate her life. I feel like this will help us get by that day."

The wreck

On that day, authorities said George Rogers of Chester ran a red light on S.C. 9, and his logging truck slammed into a minivan at the Lewisville High School Road intersection just as school was getting out.

The crash killed Hannah and Nicholas. Hannah's mother, Alice, was driving the van, and her son, Timmy, and Nicholas' sister, Taylor, were passengers. All three survived, as did Rogers, who was charged with two counts of reckless homicide. His trial date has not been set.

Timmy, then 7, had the most serious injuries of the survivors, breaking his legs, arms and jaw. The impact of the crash was so hard it threw him out of the vehicle, even though he was wearing a seat belt. Some people at the scene didn't think he would live.

But Timmy persevered. He stayed in the intensive care unit for nine days, being cared for by doctors and prayed over by friends and family. He was finally released April 13.

The gifts

Just after the wreck, compassion poured from Richburg, Fort Lawn, Edgemoor, Lancaster and Wayne's hometown of Rock Hill. The families' churches offered the comfort that congregations in small communities do amid tragedy.

"Our church came to our rescue," Carlton said. His family had attended the church for only a year when the wreck happened.

At the Quinton house, people collected mail, cleaned and cooked for more than a month. During the children's funerals, friends kept a vigil by Timmy's side, not wanting him to be alone if he woke up.

Some strangers, generous Samaritans, gave simply because there was a need. Carlton remembers when his septic system backed up. It was the day of Nicholas' wake. The repairman who came to their house wouldn't take a check when he realized who they were.

When some of the Quintons' church friends opened a pizza parlor in Chester that May, they gave away slices on their first day in business and only accepted donations for the families.

Lewisville High School students raised money. The racetracks in Lancaster and Richburg passed around hats at races, collecting more money.

Wayne, who works in the produce section of the Heckle Boulevard Food Lion, saw colleagues at several local stores offer donations. Months later, a dinner train ride from Richburg to the Catawba River generated more gifts.

Even Timmy's teacher volunteered to train him at home while he recovered. Because of her help, he didn't fall behind.

"People just don't show their feelings like they used to," Wayne said. "But we found out that there's a lot of people still left that have a lot of love in them."

To show their gratitude, the families put up a sign beside the intersection where their children died. In capital letters, it says: "Thank you for your love, support & prayers."

Both families remain amazed at the impact of their neighbors' generosity. Somehow, unity emerged amid devastation.

"It brought a lot of people closer together in this community and in our churches," Carlton said. "People who hadn't worked together hand in hand were doing it -- for us, for the kids."

"And it wasn't just a month's time and then they forgot about it," Alice said. "It's still an ongoing thing for the whole community."

Carlton recently went to see a friend about planting a memorial tree for Hannah. While he was there, the two men started talking about work, and Carlton said he was still looking for a job.

On the day of the wreck, Carlton was cleaning out his work van because he'd turned in his two-week notice. Work was too far away and wasn't giving him enough time with his family. After the wreck, he tried two other jobs, but things didn't pan out.

When the friend heard Carlton's plight, he told his wife to write Carlton a check for $500.

"You know, you're down, you're out, and people come through for no reason," Carlton said. "It's God working in these ways and through people. He's there to keep us going. And the people are there to keep us going."

'We have a bond for life'

The wreck not only unified those around them, it also tethered the two families, forever entwining their lives.

"God had a plan and knew that our children would be going to heaven at that time," Carlton said. "We get through this together. Obviously, we have a bond for life here."

The families met a few years ago when Alice was working as an IGA cashier. One day, Wayne's wife, Jane, was in the store, and the two women started talking about their kids. Jane mentioned she had a little boy about Timmy's age. A few play dates later, the boys were fast friends at school and in Cub Scouts.

"We were bonded before (the wreck)," Alice said. "But now, it's almost like a marriage bond."

During Nicholas' visitation, the Quintons sat in the seats reserved for family members. The Cherrys did the same during services for Hannah.

This was Jane's idea.

"What made me do that originally was because somebody said, 'Do y'all want to be friends still?'' Jane said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah. Of course.' ... It would be terrible if we ended up hating each other."

'Life has to go on'

The tributes to Hannah and Nicholas are everywhere.

There are the cabinets, the benches and the "Thank You" sign covered in flowers and teddy bears and surrounded by crosses. There's a flower bed for Nicholas behind the Cherrys' house where sunflowers and mums were planted last year. And the Quintons will plant a tree for Hannah in their yard.

So many reminders.

"We're sad about the fact that our children are gone," Carlton said. "But life has to go on. We have two other beautiful children that we have to go on for. And sometimes the days are hard."

The families don't see these memorials as places to mourn. Yes, they grieve daily. There's no emotional antidote for the agony that comes with losing a child. Carlton has seen that pain when he attends a group for parents whose children have died. Some people there have been grieving for 30 years.

Hurting, the families say, is part of the process, the element that means they remember.

But memorials help the families focus on the happy moments, not on the tragedy: The day Nicholas caught more bass than Wayne, and Hannah's last birthday party, a Hannah Montana-themed event where little girls sang songs on a karaoke machine.

"We need to talk about our children," Carlton said.

At the same time, they also must support Timmy and Taylor. Both children lost their closest playmates in the wreck. They've been to grief counseling. Taylor gets lonely sometimes, and Timmy just wants to fit in with all the other kids, not being asked about the crash.

But things are getting better. Timmy, now 8, is an honor-roll student. His dad has been giving him pointers about swinging a bat, preparing him for coach-pitch baseball.

Six-year-old Taylor is getting involved in Girl Scouts, tap dance, T-ball and story time at the library. The Cherrys' neighbors also have a 16-year-old daughter with makeup who lets Taylor come over and get dolled up.

"Thank God that our children are in a very special place," Carlton said of Hannah and Nicholas. "And that he left two behind."

As they continue to cope with the deaths of their children, the parents also have hope, the kind Christian people talk about when they speak of life, death and what they believe happens beyond that. Jane's pastor recently gave a message that she hasn't forgotten.

"One thing stuck in my mind," she said. "Every day that we get through, we're one day closer to them."