LINWOOD - Members of the Mainland Regional High School football team, dressed in their Mustangs jerseys, began a vigil Sunday night for the four teammates they lost in a Garden State Parkway crash in the same manner they begin their games: They huddled together, cheered and hugged as they ran onto the football field two-by-two - some in tears.
"Lift your eyes up to the sky. That Mainland team is passing by," the players shouted as the crowd of more than 3,000 applauded.
The vigil began shortly after 8 p.m. School administrators arranged for a mix of teachers, counselors and members of the local clergy to be available to members of the community at the school in the three hours leadings up to the vigil for Casey Brenner, 17, of Northfield, Edgar Bozzi, 17, of Somers Point, Nicholas Conner, 16, of Northfield and Dean Khoury, 15, of Linwood. All four were killed in the parkway crash near exit 38A as they headed to a traditional end-of-summer-practice breakfast at the Old Country Buffet in Hamilton Township.
Superintendent Thomas Baruffi, the only person who spoke at the vigil, said the teens' deaths have shocked the school and left a hole in the community.
"When we sat down last night we decided that, most importantly, we wanted people to have a place to congregate and talk, whether they want to take advantage of counseling services or not," Baruffi said. "We decided that was something we could do to help. There's certainly no book on this."
Two of the football team's upcoming scrimmages have been cancelled, and all other Monday practices have been cancelled. Coaches have been asked to use their discretion about whether or not to hold practices after Monday, Baruffi said.
"Obviously, the programs have to go on at some point," he said. "People also have to have time to heal."
Little was said publicly after the crowd gathered on the field. Packs of teens embraced, and some walked with arms locked, holding each other up. Initially people gathered on the stadium benches, but later police allowed the crowd an opportunity to pass by a memorial to the boys on the field.
At the 50-yard line stood four pots of palm leaves tied to a bench. Mounted photos of the four who died were placed in front of the plants.
"I don't want to go out there. If I do, I'll start crying," one girl said before leaving the vigil.
Lindsay Carighan and Johanna Islinger, who will both be seniors at Mainland this year, said the accident has made a significant impact on the school.
"All these people who used to have fights before are just putting them aside and moving on because it's not worth it," Islinger said.
"Things can happen so fast," Carighan said.
Christene Hankel, of Egg Harbor Township, was one of dozens of rescue workers who responded to the scene of the accident. She, along with other rescue workers and school officials, helped to organize Sunday's vigil. Hankel recently moved to the area from Palm Bay, Fla., and did not know the teens.
"So many of us were breaking down at the scene as everything was going on. Some of the rescuers were crying right there. I could cry right now," said Hankel, a firefighter with the Farmington Volunteer Fire Company. "It's just really, really tough. It was extremely tragic."
At Sunday's vigil, Hankel brought some of the rescue dogs she trains. The dogs weren't used to respond to Saturday's accident, but she said she's found that bringing the dogs out while people are grieving can be therapeutic for some. She brought rescue dogs to Ground Zero and the Pentagon in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to help survivors cope, she said.
"Sometimes it just helps to see the dogs," she said. "It gives people a little bit of comfort knowing that they're trying to save lives."
Two medical incidents - a diabetic emergency and a case of hypertension - were reported during the vigil. Northfield police Chief Robert James said in both cases the individuals involved were treated at the scene and released.
"It is what it is," he said. "It's the kind of thing that happens in these situations."
Individuals throughout the community showed their support in other ways. Linwood Councilman Alex Marino canceled a fundraiser for his campaign for Atlantic County freeholder Sunday "out of decency."
Flags at homes and at other local businesses flew at half-staff.
Shortly after 4 p.m. on Sunday, Kathy Hafetz lowered the flag outside of her family's Linwood business to half-staff in honor of the teens who died. Hafetz, who owns Hafetz and Associates Insurance Company on New Road, has a daughter who will be a senior at Mainland this year.
"It's just a tragedy of huge proportions. I still can't wrap my head around it," Hafetz said.
Her daughter knew the teens who died, though they weren't extremely close, she said.
"At this point, it's the ripple effect. Now, she has friends who are really hurting and she's trying to be there for them. It's hard to watch," Hafetz said. "Lowering the flag to honor their lives seemed like the right thing to do."
Earlier in the day, Dan Anderson, owner of Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro on Shore Road in Somers Point, changed his marquee sign in memorium to the students killed in the crash. The sign reads: Our Prayers are with Mainland HS & families.
Anderson said he is a new businessman in the area and didn't know the boys personally, but his employees were devestated by the news.
"Many of my employees knew these kids and were very upset about it. We discussed it Saturday night and decided it would be nice to put up the sign," Anderson said.
Next door, at Gregory's Restaurant and Bar, a similar parking lot marquee sign read: God bless MRHS family and friends.
Students and friends stopped to pay their respects to the boys at a makeshift memorial site at the high school's front entrance Sunday.
Deirdre Lenzsch, a 14-year-old Mainland Regional freshman rode her bike from Somers Point and stopped at the site before pedaling off to find her football jersey she lost Friday night. Lenzsch is an offensive tackle on the high school's freshman football team.
She said Dean Khoury played football with her brother Timmy and was at their house Wednesday and he brought a pizza.
"He was always really funny. I saw him all the time because he was friends with my brother," she said.
"It's hard because you see someone and you don't really know if it's going to be the last time you see them," she said as she fought back tears.
Contact Jennifer Bogdan