*//&!! (brokengypsy713) wrote in stuckinpalmbay,

MELBOURNE -- The four headed to a popular weekend hangout Friday night, where teenagers mingle at bonfires and show off their cars on a desolate, sandy stretch of Eau Gallie Boulevard carved from wetlands on its way to Lake Washington.
Photo gallery: Friday's truck crash

Only one came home.

In a tragedy that left their families and friends choked with grief, three youths died when the Jeep Grand Cherokee they were riding in swerved off the dark road and plunged down an embankment into a 12-foot wide drainage canal alongside the roadway.

Trapped when the SUV flipped upside-down in the murky 6-foot water, three of them drowned despite the efforts of Brevard sheriff's deputies and fire-rescue personnel who raced to the scene and dived into the water in a frantic rescue attempt.

One who survived alerted rescuers to her friends' dire plight.

Killed in the accident about 9 p.m. Friday were the driver, Jeremy Charles, 21, of Melbourne; Autumn Noel Gomme, 15, of Palm Bay; and Michael Reinertsen, 16, of Melbourne.

A passenger, Kathleen Ramsey, 17, of Melbourne, escaped just before the SUV sank into the canal. The vehicle came to rest with just a portion of its rear wheels above the water.

By nightfall Saturday, friends gathered on the road, in the dark, holding hands and lighting candles.

Dozens of police and rescue officers responded to the site, less than a mile west of Interstate 95. But resuscitation efforts failed, as the victims apparently had been in the water for several minutes before passers-by, hearing Kathleen's screams, called 9-1-1.

The parents of the victims described their children as typical adolescents who stayed out of trouble and had goals.

Autumn Gomme, a student at Bayside High School, wanted to be a veterinarian because she loved animals.

Michael Reinertsen, who attended Eau Gallie High School, wanted to join his dad in the flooring business.

Jeremy Charles, a graduate of Eau Gallie High, wanted to be a police officer and had ridden along with Melbourne officers on several occasions.

"That was my baby girl," cried Andrew Gomme, of Port St. John, collapsing into the arms of his fiancee, Sandra McCullough, at the accident scene Saturday morning. Gomme is divorced from Autumn's mother, Helaine.

"She told her mother she was going to go to the movies, and she's usually in bed by 10," Gomme said. "I don't know why she got into the car with a 21-year-old. I don't have a clue how that could happen, because she didn't like to go fast in the car. When I used to take her in my hot rod, she would say, 'Dad, slow it down.' "

At the scene, serpentine tire tracks on the road's loamy surface were telltale signs that the SUV might have been swerving before it skidded off the road. It slid past a palmetto shrub, missing a moss-laden oak tree, and virtually vanished in the inky water.

"Kids frequent this place on weekends, playing with their four-wheel pickups and sliding and doing donuts," Sheriff's Sgt. Ron Barker said.

Kathleen's father, George Ramsey, said his daughter told him the driver had been playfully swerving the vehicle on the sandy roadway, which is unlit and has no railing to keep vehicles out of the canal, which is just four feet from the roadway and is virtually invisible at night.

"My daughter told me he was turning the wheel back and forth before it went off the road," Ramsey said. "She's very upset that the other three kids are dead and she's alive. We feel very bad for the kids that died."

Ramsey, who moved his family to Melbourne from Long Island in 1998, added: "I don't know how my daughter wound up in the vehicle because we had talked about not getting in cars with people she doesn't know much about."

Richard and Melanie Reinertsen, the parents of Michael Reinertsen, stood puffy-eyed at the road's edge, staring numbingly into the canal. Michael had also told his parents he would be at the movies.

They said had prohibited their son from getting a driver's permit because "he was just too young," Melanie said.

Now, Melanie said she would campaign to have authorities mark the desolate road with lighting, guardrails and warning signs.

"It's what I am going to do with my life," Melanie said. "I want kids to realize that this is not a game, it's their life. I talked to Autumn's dad, and he wants to do the same thing."

Said Richard Reinertsen, who moved his family to Melbourne from New Jersey 11 years ago: "I'm calling a lawyer in the morning. You can't even turn around on this road without going in the ditch. Even if it was paved, it wouldn't be safe at night."

Gary Charles, Jeremy's father, said he son was a "very decent kid."

"I think you'll see from the outpouring from people at the memorial how well liked he was," the elder Charles said. "I hope the rest of the kids will grasp how precious life is."

Robert Connor, 73, who owns R.A. Connor Construction Company across the road from the canal, said he has seen numerous near-tragedies on the same road for years.

"The kids come flying through here," Connor said. "But youth is youth. They don't have any fear."

Connor said that two years ago, he and his son Ricky pulled someone out of a car after it careered into the canal.

Another time, Connor said he and his wife came upon two teenagers lying on the road after their all-terrain vehicles had collided head-on.

As Connor spoke, Sgt. Chuck Griffith of the Florida Highway Patrol consoled Autumn's father, telling him: "It was an unfortunate accident. These were good kids, they were exemplary in school."

Gomme replied disconsolately: "Yes, but that isn't going to bring my daughter back."

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