LINWOOD — The four high school football players who survived a car crash that killed four of their teammates were released from the hospital Sunday in time for an evening vigil at Mainland Regional High School.
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Before rain forced them inside, athletes, coaches, staff, and alumni flooded the football field to mourn four teenagers who had practiced there less than 36 hours before. But the evening ceremony — and school-run counseling sessions leading up to it — aimed to help survivors begin addressing the emotional and psychological implications of the tragedy.
“These kids, I talked to a couple of them, and on the surface they’re handling it pretty well. But you don’t know if they’ll have nightmares or how it’s going to affect them,” said Joseph Smith, whose 17-year-old son, Jake, was a passenger in the 2002 Ford Explorer that flipped over on the Garden State Parkway just before noon Saturday.
Joseph Smith said his son told him the SUV flipped after driver Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield, swerved and braked to avoid hitting cars at the end of a line of heavy, slow-moving traffic. Brenner came upon the congestion suddenly as he drove over the crest of a hill on the southbound side of the parkway, Smith said.
As the SUV rolled over, Jake Smith — who Joseph Smith said was not wearing a seat belt — was thrown against the window, and as it dragged along the asphalt, most of Jake’s skin was removed from his back, his father said.
“It’s an open wound, his whole back,” Joseph Smith said. “If there’s nothing (more to the injury), hopefully he’ll be recovered in just a couple weeks.”
Smith was reached after bringing his son home from the hospital Sunday afternoon. They planned to immediately join head football coach Bob Coffey and other coaches, teammates, families, and alumni gathering at Coffey’s home for the vigil at the high school a few blocks away.
Smith said counseling will be critical to the healing process for survivors, but that the team and families already are well supported by school staff including Coffey and Superintendent Thomas Baruffi, who briefly visited Jake at home upon his return from the hospital.
Other surviving passengers are 16-year-old Northfield residents Alex DeNafo and Kyle Beattie, who declined comment, and Kenneth Randall, 15, of Linwood, who was unreachable.
Brenner was killed along with Edgar Bozzi, of Somers Point; Nicholas Conner, of Northfield; and Dean Khoury, of Linwood.
“Linwood is a very tight-knit community,” Smith said. “And Mainland, it’s a good high school, and the people that work there, they really look out for the kids.”
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