By Jason Trahan and Joshua Benton
and Matthew Zabel
They were the kind of kids who sang in the church choir. They flew to Central America to help children struggling with cerebral palsy. For fun, they went rock climbing and played computer games. They dreamed of being veterinarians and journalists.
Four University of North Texas students were killed Thursday afternoon when their car crashed into a tractor-trailer in East Texas, officials said. They were seven hours into a long drive back from the New Orleans Bowl game.
Witnesses said the students’ car swerved across the median of Interstate 20 in Gregg County, near Longview, and slammed into the truck head-on. A trooper said driver fatigue may have been a factor in the crash.
Benjamin Lee, 20, of Garland was the driver. Rebecca Faires, 18, of Decatur was in the passenger seat. Stephanie Kehr, 19, of Garland and Evan Belsley, 20, of Richardson were in the back. All four were pronounced dead at the scene; state troopers said they probably died instantly.
The four were returning from watching UNT’s football team lose to Memphis, 27-17, on Tuesday night. Troopers found Mardi Gras beads strewn in and around the car.
“They had their school IDs on them,” said Trooper Kendall Belt, investigating the crash for the Texas Department of Public Safety. “When we saw that it was college kids, it was just unbelievable. I’m just sad for all the families.
“I’ve been doing this three years, and this is the worst one I’ve investigated.”
Troopers said they haven’t determined what caused Mr. Lee to swerve. Witnesses said they saw nothing unusual in the moments before the accident – no speeding or horseplay, no blown tires or objects in the road.
“The only other thing is it could have been fatigue,” Trooper Belt said.
He said the four had been on the road for about seven hours, driving down unchanging, often-featureless stretches of Interstates 49 and 20.
Mr. Lee was westbound on I-20 about 5 p.m. when the car veered into the grassy median. Witnesses said the vehicle corrected course and re-entered the westbound lanes before veering into the grassy median a second time and crossing into oncoming traffic. The car collided head on with a truck pulling a flatbed trailer.
A Longview man driving the truck was not injured, officials said. A forklift that the truck was carrying toppled onto the road, resting in both eastbound lanes.
Mr. Lee’s body was sent to the Dallas County medical examiner’s office for an autopsy and toxicology tests. Trooper Belt said there was no sign of alcohol in the car.
Friends and family remembered the four as good-hearted youths.
“She was a wonderful, sweet girl,” said Stephanie’s grandmother, Fern Kehr. She said Stephanie loved animals, especially horses, and planned to become a veterinarian.
On Tuesday nights, she sang in the Denton Wesley Foundation choir. In May, she went on a church mission trip to Costa Rica, where she worked with children with cerebral palsy.
“When I think of her, I think of a smile – very quiet, just a joyful kind of presence,” said Cammy Gaston, director of the Denton Wesley Foundation.
“Stephanie was perhaps one of the most caring, genuine people I know,” said James Sicks, a UNT graduate student who also served on the Costa Rica mission. “She had impeccable integrity.”
She loved playing cards or Trivial Pursuit with her family, her grandmother said, and performed ballet as a child.
Ms. Faires was Ms. Kehr’s roommate. Becca, as Ms. Faires’ friends called her, was an avid rock climber; she worked part time at the Student Recreation Center’s climbing wall.
Her younger brother Vincent said Becca was a vibrant, active girl who loved music, particularly Christian rock.
Her Methodist faith was important to her, said Vincent, 16. “She was great to hang out with,” he said.
Ms. Faires graduated from Decatur High School a year early and would have been an 18-year-old junior at UNT next term.
At the Wesley Foundation, on Maple Street in Denton, about 20 friends gathered Friday to remember the students. Ms. Gaston led a prayer.
“They were beacons that showed us the way, and they will be missed,” said friend Steven Mendoza.
Mr. Lee and Mr. Belsley had been roommates during the 2002-03 school year. They lived apart during the fall term, but they had planned to share a room in Clark Hall in January.
They led active collegiate lives, busy with intramural sports and other residence hall activities. Mr. Lee was treasurer of Clark’s residence hall association. Both loved UNT football, often driving to away games and painting their faces in UNT green.
Mr. Lee was a “serious, motivated student” who was starting to understand his abilities, said George Getschow, who taught him in a beginning journalism class.
“He told me early on he didn’t think much of himself as a writer,” Mr. Getschow said. “But as the course went on, his self-confidence grew.”
He worked hard in class, Mr. Getschow said, and would have been a great reporter.
“He was smitten with journalism; I was expecting great things from him,” he said.
Mr. Belsley was into computers. “He knew everything about them. He was a whiz,” said his brother Ben, 17. When Evan went off to college, he and his brother stayed close.
“We were into the same stuff,” Ben said. “We played Internet games together. Even though he was in Denton and I am in Richardson, we talked a lot. We got closer as we got older. It’s like losing a friend and a brother.”
Faith, friends and family are helping the Belsleys cope with the loss, Ben said.
“A lot of my friends are Christian, and most of them are here,” he said. “He knew God. I know he’s in a better place.”
Most of UNT’s students have left campus for the holiday break. Bonita Jacobs, the university’s vice president for student development, said memorials and grief counseling will be delayed until classes begin next month.
The residents of Clark Hall are a close-knit family, said resident assistant Brian Washam. Losing Ben and Evan will have an impact.
“When school starts back up, I know they’ll miss having them hanging out at the front desk to talk to or to play pool with,” Mr. Washam said. “It will be strange not having them there.”
Staff writer Tanya Eiserer contributed to this report.