Five young people are dead following a crash with a wrong-way driver on Interstate 89 in Williston, Vermont State Police said.
According to a post shared through the Facebook page of The Valley Reporter from Harwood Union High School co-principal Amy Rex, the crash claimed the lives of four Harwood juniors and another student who is a junior at another school.
Rex identified the students as Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury, Janie Cozzi, 15, of Fayston, Liam Hale, 16, of Fayston, Mary Harris, 16, of Moretown, and Cyrus Zschau, 16, of Moretown. School administrators said the students were friends.
The chaos started just before midnight, investigators said, with 911 callers reporting a wrong-way driver in a pickup truck barreling north in the southbound lane of Interstate 89 in Bolton.
5 Killed in Fiery Crash in Vermont
Soon after the initial reports were filed, that truck crashed into a small sedan in Williston, police said. That vehicle ended up in the median and burst into flames.
State Police said the five teens in the car died at the scene.
"This is extremely unusual to have this many fatalities in one crash," Captain Mike Henry told necn affiliate NBC 5 early Sunday morning. "This is difficult not only for the members on scene, rescue personnel who responded, fire personnel, but also the family members who are going to have to deal with this after the fact."
Harwood's crisis team opened the school Sunday for students, faculty, staff, families, and neighbors. It will be open again Monday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the Facebook post said.
"This is an unprecedented tragedy," the Harwood Facebook post said. "We have suffered a tremendous loss. These students were vibrant members of our school community, actively involved and all with a promise for a bright future."
The Harwood faculty, staff, and coaches will meet Monday to plan how to best reopen the school and support students, the Facebook post said.
“Vermont State Police have been on the scene all night and will not stop until they determine exactly what happened,” Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, said in a written statement Sunday afternoon. “The loss of five young Vermonters in such a senseless tragedy is heartbreaking. Vermont is a community, and today we share the sadness and loss of the families and friends of these teens. My deepest sympathies are with their loved ones. We will keep the public updated as more facts are known.”
Henry said while a Williston officer was tending to one of the victims and trying to put out the fire, the officer looked up to see a man stealing the officer's police cruiser and speeding off.
Police identified the cruiser thief as Steven D. Bourgoin, 36, of Williston. Henry said after Bourgoin fled the scene, he turned around before police could intercept him and he once again raced the wrong way on the interstate. That's when he's accused of smashing into seven other vehicles in the stolen police cruiser, investigators said.
Sunday morning, a wrecker hauled the mangled and charred cruiser off the interstate.
Henry could not immediately say if Bourgoin was under the influence of alcohol or drugs because the investigation was still ongoing and because Bourgoin needed hospitalization. Late morning, the University of Vermont Medical Center listed Bourgoin in critical condition.
According to the Williston Fire Department, five patients in varying conditions from the vehicles struck with the stolen cruiser were transported by four ambulances. Police described their injuries as non-life-threatening.
"There are no words that can truly describe the horrific events as they occurred last night," senior firefighter Prescott Nadeau of the Williston Fire Department said in a statement Sunday afternoon. "The Williston Fire Department would like to extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of those lost in this tragic event. Please keep all those involved in your thoughts and prayers."
Three neighboring fire departments provided mutual aid assistance with equipment and manpower, including covering the town while firefighters were committed to the interstate, Nadeau added.
Police reopened I-89 in both directions shortly after 9 a.m.
This crash is still under investigation and Vermont State Police asked anyone with information to call the barracks in Williston at 802-878-7111.