The nursing students arrived first. Most wore white lab coats identifying themselves as members of the campus group hit hardest: They lost five friends and classmates.
Then, with a westerly breeze rising, came the sororities. Some wore T-shirts announcing their sisterhood; others wore pink because, well, their dead sister liked the color. They all wore sadness like it had been pinned on them.
At last came everyone else — students and faculty and staff, off- and on-duty cops, at least one mother pushing a stroller holding a fussy infant, an elderly woman walking an aged golden retriever. They stood respectfully, tucked in the shadows of pecans, magnolias and water oaks.
All told, the crowd gathered at Georgia Southern University Thursday night numbered at least 1,000, probably twice that. The throng filled a space where students usually toss flying discs or linger over lunch.
But this breezy evening was set aside to remember the dead: Caitlyn Baggett, Morgan Bass, Emily Clark, Abbie Deloach and Catherine “McKay” Pittman. Nursing students, they were killed in a crash on Interstate 16 Wednesday morning as they drove toward Savannah for some hands-on instruction at an area hospital.
The deaths hit this university of 20,500 hard. Classes Thursday were subdued; campus lawns, quiet. “I could just tell it going to work this morning,” said Teresa Tucker, an apartment rental agent. Moved by the tragedy, she revised the sign outside her office. “Praying For Our Eagle Nation,” it read.
They gathered as the sun set on another day. Dr. Brooks Keel, the university president, fought to keep his voice steady as he bemoaned the university’s loss.
“Eagle Nation is a family,” he said. And families, he said, stick together. They love each other.
“Hold on to that love. Hold on to that support. And Eagle Nation, hold on to each other, for we are family.”
A succession of nursing students followed, offering a few quick memories: Caitlyn’s funny texts; Morgan’s love of pink clothes and “sparkly things;” how Emily mentored younger students; Abbie’s slick basketball moves; McKay’s tireless efforts to promote Georgia Southern when potential students visited the campus.
And this: They all agreed, that, yes, this quintet had gone from Eagles to something more celestial — that the wings they now have can never tire.
The memorial lasted 45 minutes. It concluded with a candle-lighting ceremony. A phalanx of university employees moved through the crowd, lighters flashing. One, 10, 500, maybe 1,000 candles flickered in the gathering dusk.
A man grasping a cello played Bach. A sorority girl on the front row grasping a tissue wept. A child yelled once.
That evening breeze? It came through and snatched at the candles’ flames. It extinguished some.
Candles, like young lives, sometimes go out too quickly.
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