Students filed into the Clinton College gym Monday morning for an assembly – not one of them smiled. Not the normal joy of college, no horseplay, no asking about the weekend. Everybody knew what happened over the weekend.
Two of their own were dead, and several classmates injured with a few still in hospitals, after a Saturday bus crash in North Carolina. Classes were canceled for Monday and Tuesday as school officials, clergy, and the American Red Cross offered counseling and other services to the students who were hurt or just knew the wounded and deceased.
A few who were on the bus headed to a junior college football game in Fayetteville, N.C. – and since released from hospitals – walked slowly with their bruised bodies and their shaken young souls. Some students held each other. People sat together, and many held hands. Others needed to be alone.
Students Devonte Gibson, 21, of Rock Hill, and Tito Hamilton, 19, of Pahokee, Fla., were killed. The bus was carrying players for the Ramah Juco Academy football team when it crashed. Many of the players are Clinton students.
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Also killed in the crash were bus driver, Brian Andre Kirkpatrick, 43, of Chester, and Darice Lamont Hicks Jr., 8, of Rock Hill.
The cause of the crash – where a bus tire blew before the bus hit a guard rail and bridge abutment – remains unclear. Federal officials from the National Transportation Safety Board are at the crash site near Hamlet, N.C., looking at the bus and its tires.
Elaine Copeland, Clinton College president since 2002, herself an alumnus, stopped before the assembly started and sat with one of the students who was on the bus. She put her arm around that young man and told him he is not alone, and never will be, because at Clinton all are family and all are loved.
To a person, students and staff at Clinton College remained stunned and in shock Monday.
“We called Devonte ‘Gibby;’ he was a great guy, super smart,” said Markeshia Lockhart, a Clinton student, Monday morning outside the campus before the assembly started. “He was always wanting people to get together, especially for things like Bible study.”
Lockhart called Hamilton “a big teddy bear” whom other students loved to talk with and hug because of his size.
“The loss of both of them is hard on everyone,” Lockhart said. “They were great guys. Everybody is heartbroken.”
Lockhart said that the student body is collectively praying for all who died and were injured.
“Everyone here is family,” Lockhart said.
Before Monday’s student assembly, Rock Hill firefighters helped college officials lower the American flag on campus to half staff in memory of the dead and in honor of the injured. A few students walked by and some of them cried.
In the assembly, college leaders told all the students that Clinton, a historically black college established in 1894 by the AME Zion church, really is a family, and that any student who needed help grieving, or for any reason, would get it. Clinton, which transitioned from a junior college in 2013, has around 200 students.
“This is a tough time for all of us but here at Clinton we love together, we care for each other, we will persevere together,” Rob Copeland, the school’s vice president for student affairs, told the student body. “Love resonates in our hearts. We are going to take care of each other.”
Gibson and Hamilton had only been at the school for five weeks since classes started, but “it felt like we knew them for years,” Copeland said, because both young men were campus leaders beloved by all.
Bishop Herbert Crump, senior pastor at Freedom Temple Ministries in Rock Hill and a Clinton alum, said that his church and others will assist the students and staff in any way needed.
“Clinton College has been the heart of Rock Hill for more than a hundred years, and right now in this time of tragedy all of us in the Clinton family are unified in working together to get through this trying time,” Crump said.
Elaine Copeland, the school president, told the assembled students and faculty that the aftermath of the crash is a “painful time,” and that pain is heavy on her heart, too. She had met with Gibson just Friday, a day before he died, to talk about studying biology as a major because football was not his focus in life.
Hamilton was “always laughing and joking,” Copeland said, and lit up every room he was in.
At small Clinton, students know the staff right up to the president whose door is never closed. That’s why this crash hurts so bad.
Copeland told the students that the staff members were prepared, even through their own grief, to make sure students stayed on the path of making sure that schoolwork is completed even as emotions are raw.
A school memorial service for the deceased students will be held in coming days at Rock Hill’s Monroe Transformation Center on Saluda Street.
At the end of Monday’s assembly, there was one last prayer. The whole room stood and everyone held hands. Clinton staff, the older adults, vowed to help these young adults get through this difficult time in their lives. And when it was over, people hugged each other, and tried to understand how something so bad happened to people affiliated with a place that is so good.