CHICAGO – The four families waited and worried and finally searched the streets through the long night. Their children, all friends from high school, had never returned home.
Shortly after daybreak, they got the grim news. A car was found overturned in a creek, and inside were the bodies of two boys and two girls, ages 14 to 17. Their children.
Melissa Robertson cried as the car was slowly towed from Forked Creek southeast of Wilmington, praying that her niece Micalah Sembach was not among the bodies inside.
“(I was) praying, begging, pleading, willing to trade,” Robertson said, her eyes filling with tears. “Fifteen years old. I’m already tired. She didn’t even have a chance to get tired. … I’m old and tired. I would have gladly gone in her place.”
Kim Fender, an aunt of one of the other victims, Cheyenne Fender, 17, learned of the crash when her sister-in-law called with the news.
“She called me this morning crying,” Fender said. “She was just crying and crying, and she didn’t know exactly what happened. I know (Cheyenne) didn’t come home last night like she was supposed to.”
Fender said she didn’t see her niece often, but the last time she did was about a year ago when the teen was visiting her grandmother in Altamont. She said Cheyenne was “a cute, cute baby” and had grown into an outgoing young woman.
The other victims were identified as Cody Carter, 15, and Matt Bailey, 14. Three of the victims were students at Wilmington High School, the fourth a former student there.
The four were driving along Ballou Road sometime overnight when the two-door Mitsubishi plunged into Forked Creek.
Around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, a school bus driver saw a tire sticking out of the creek, officials said. Emergency crews arrived and found the guard rail on the Ballou Road bridge over Forked Creek missing. A dive team called to the scene saw at least one body in the car, and a tow truck pulled the two-door Mitsubishi from the water.
A blue tent was set up as the bodies were taken from the car.
Secretary of state records show Cheyenne had received her driver’s license in June and had owned a Mitsubishi. Because she had her driver’s license for less than a year, she was only allowed to have one passenger in her car.
Micalah’s family knew something was wrong by 5:30 p.m. Monday. She had dropped off her backpack at home after school and told them she was going out with some friends.
When her mother called to tell her to be home by 5 to work on her math project and finish some chores, she gladly agreed, her family said. “That was it,” Robertson said. “‘Love you. Bye.’ Happy, normal ending of a conversation.”
Half an hour later, Robertson said the family contacted police and then filed a missing persons report. “When she was told to be home, give or take two minutes, she was home,” Robertson said. “That’s how much of a good kid she was. So we knew.”
When authorities told the family Micalah might have run away, they said it wasn’t possible. Not their Micalah. “We had half the neighborhood out looking for her,” said Robertson.
Family and friends took to the streets in cars and on foot, and at one point Robertson said she even woke up the manager of the local hotel. “We were trying anything at that point,” she said.
They also turned to Facebook, asking if anyone had seen her, and stayed in touch with the families of the other three teens, she said.
“She was supposed to be home at 5,” said Jeana Andrus, a close family friend who was Micalah’s nanny from six months until kindergarten. “When she didn’t come home, everybody knew that something prevented her from coming home.
“At any given time last night, there was between 15 and 20 cars and trucks out looking for them.”
Just before 7:30 a.m., Robertson said she received a call from a parent of one of the other teens. The parent was driving, saying someone had spotted the car. Robertson, who had been on her way to meet with a media outlet to get a picture of Micalah on the news, switched on the hazard lights and turned the car around.
She barely lifted her foot off the gas for the next 10 miles, she said. “I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking,” she said.
At one point, she turned to her husband Aaron Johnson and handed him her phone. “I was going to jump in there … without a doubt. Wouldn’t have even have thought twice about it,” Robertson said.
Even after seeing the bumper of the car, the back two wheels above the water’s surface, they had hope. “I was just like, please don’t let it be her,” Johnson said.
“She would do anything for anyone … She had the biggest heart,” Robertson said, pausing as she lifted her glasses to wipe away tears. “Right now I’m in shock. I can’t get that car out of my head.”
Micalah’s father Michael Sembach talked about his daughter as he stood on the front porch of his Wilmington home this morning, his eyes welling with tears.
“She was a great kid,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say right now. She was in band. She came home on time. She was a great kid.”
One of the few times Robertson laughed on Tuesday was when she described Micalah as a “teenager.”
“She was messy,” she said. “She always left the lights on.”
And when she came home from school, she would head straight for the computer to listen to music. Music, her aunt said, was her life. She had an eclectic taste, from country to rap, Sugarland to Snoop Dogg.
She was an only child. She loved animals, including the family’s two dogs “who are heartbroken right now,” she said.
She played the oboe and clarinet, was in the school band and color guard. She planned to go to college – though the thought of doing her own dishes worried her a bit – and study robotic engineering.
Wilmington, a small town surrounded by fields of weathered corn stubble on the Kankakee River, is a close-knit community, said Sandy Vasko, who lives just outside town and is clerk of Wesley Township, the unincorporated area where the wreck occurred.
In a typical edition of the local paper, a quarter of the dozen or so pages are taken up with pictures and articles about local children. Graduating classes at Wilmington High have perhaps 90 students.
“This is a town that loves its children,” Vasko said, choking up. “The town is devastated.”
Wilmington Mayor Mayor Marty Orr said the community will help the families heal.
“We’ll cope. That’s the beauty of Wilmington,” he said. “We’re a very tight-knit community. We’ll lean on each other … But there will always be a piece missing.”
Community School District 209 Superintendent Jay Plese said the three students were freshmen and sophomores at the school. He said he couldn’t imagine the fear that gripped the families through the night.
“I think any time a child doesn’t respond, it would be out of character,” he said. “It would probably send chills to any parent.”