Even after 30 years working in law enforcement and as an emergency medical technician, Armstrong County Sheriff Bill Rupert called the collision that killed four people Wednesday night on Route 156 in South Bend Township "one of the worst accidents I've ever seen."
State police said Brandon James Sulava, 19, of Apollo was behind the wheel of a westbound 2003 Ford Mustang GT that lost control at high speed on a bend about 10:20 p.m. near Gobblers Run Road.
Mr. Sulava's car, carrying 18-year-old Brieyonah Marie Painter of Kittanning and 15-year-old Brandon Sauers of Apollo slid into the oncoming lane and was hit on the driver's side by a 1995 Chevrolet Lumina driven by Crystal Kay Kelley, 41, of Avonmore.
"He was struck with such force that the debris field was 100 yards long," Trooper Ronald Kesten said.
The three teens and Mrs. Kelley were pronounced dead at the scene. Mrs. Kelley's husband, Robert Edward Kelley Jr., 33, and the couple's friends, Kent G. Smith, 34, of Elderton, and Kristy Ann Schall, 35, of Shelocta, who were riding in the Lumina, were seriously injured and are being treated at UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh.
Autopsies will be performed on the drivers, although Armstrong County Coroner Brian Myers said speed was "a major factor" in the crash.
Sheriff Rupert, who accompanies the coroner on any major incident involving death, said the passengers in the Mustang were wearing seat belts, although he didn't know if anyone else was. He said there was no evidence of any alcohol being involved.
Sheriff Rupert said Ms. Painter was a family friend who was preparing to enter the military. She was scheduled to report to boot camp in less than a month.
Ms. Painter and Mr. Sulava were 2013 graduates of Lenape Technical School in Ford City, according to principal Karen Brock.
"They were both good students. We have counselors here this week for our students and teachers for today and next week also," she said. "Right now we're just thinking about their families and their close friends."
Apollo-Ridge School District superintendent Matthew Curci said Brandon Sauers was a student in the district and that Mr. Sulava was a former student.
"We at Apollo-Ridge are deeply saddened by the loss of these young lives," Mr. Curci wrote in an email. "Our thoughts, prayers and condolences are with all of those affected by this terrible tragedy and their families. Our staff has been working to provide appropriate supports for our students, and we will continue to have those supports in place as they return to school on Tuesday in this time of grief."
Mr. Kelley's grandmother, Shirley Kelley, said her grandson met his wife, Crystal, while she was a waitress at a restaurant in Indiana, where he worked at a scrapyard. They married in 2009.
"They just started going together, and they fell in love," she said. "They seemed good together."
Mrs. Kelley had two daughters from a prior relationship, one of whom lives with the couple on a large farm in Avonmore, though they never had children of their own.
Shirley Kelley said Mr. Smith and Ms. Schall are "very good friends" of her grandson and his late wife.
"They're together all the time," she said.
Mr. Kelley, Mr. Smith and Ms. Schall remained in critical condition Thursday at UPMC Presbyterian, a spokeswoman said.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @rczullo. Torsten Ove: email@example.com or 412-263-1510. Assistant Managing Editor Tom Birdsong contributed. First Published April 17, 2014 11:57 AM