By SUSAN SCHELL
A group of friends and family gathered along a narrow embankment beside the Chetco River Monday morning in remembrance of Steve Morris.
The tree-lined, narrow portion of the South Bank Chetco River Road was where the 16-year-old Brookings resident lost his life in a car accident Sunday afternoon.
His passenger, Travis Humphrey, also 16, was severely injured in the crash and was listed Tuesday as being in a coma at a Portland hospital.
On Monday, the Curry County Sheriff's Department, which responded to the accident, received an impromptu telephone invitation to the roadside memorial by students who were putting it together by word of mouth.
Deputy John Ward and Sheriff Kent Owens arrived and helped direct traffic around the narrow off-road shoulder where the mourners gathered.
Morris' mother, aunt and two sisters stood by, weeping softly and consoling each other with hugs.
At the time of the memorial, police did not have the full details of the accident. They could only speculate that Morris was driving too fast and lost control of the vehicle.
"The high rate of speed he was driving at was way too fast for the conditions on the south bank," Ward told the crowd, most of them teenagers.
"There is no need for speed. Accidents still happen at low speeds, but they're not as devastating. Slow down."
He added, "When kids have a 2-ton bullet in their pocket and when they're 16 they think they're invincible. In a matter of split seconds it all changes. Lives are over, lives are ruined; not just for family and close friends, but for the entire community."
Ward explained how he felt being one of the first to arrive at the scene of the accident.
"As a law enforcement officer it's pretty tough to have to see something like this. The car was hung up in a tree. They had to cut the tree down to get the car out.
"Every second counted. It was hard to fight back the tears. The condition of the passenger was critical. Cal-Ore Life Flight transported the passenger. Morris was taken away by Litty's (funeral home)."
Travis went to Sutter Coast Hospital, then he was flown to a Portland hospital where he remains in a coma. "They are operating on him this morning," Ward said.
"They were coming up the river when they lost control of the car. They turned sideways toward the river, left the road taking off about eight feet in the air. They (the car) landed in a tree, the back end was up."
Ward paused for a moment to let his words sink in.
"There's no other way to tell you this, because people are going to want to know. Steve was not pinned in the car. He didn't suffer."
A stifled moan arose from the Morris clan, who had shushed down to a series of controlled, quiet sniffles.
Ward continued, addressing the teenagers in the group, "When kids are 16, 17, 18 years old, you think you're good drivers and I'm sure most of you are. But it only takes a second, then it's all over. I want you guys to think about this. You're losing a great kid and there's no reason for it."
Morris' former basketball coach, Pat Berkowitz, brought long-stemmed roses for everyone to leave at the site.
A wooden cross was planted in the ground and one by one, each person placed a single red rose at the base of the cross in tribute to their fallen friend.
Morris' mother Marlene, who remained the picture of dignity and grace throughout, took a moment to thank everyone for showing up.
"Thank you for being here and thinking about my son," she said. "I loved him and I will miss him."
Ward then asked if anyone would like to make a statement.
Joanne Chatman, whose son was a friend of Morris', told the crowd, "I don't want you guys to go out and drink. Steve had an accident. Any one of you could have had the same accident. No drinking."
Mary Barcenas, another parent of one of Morris' friends, spoke out, "We need to slow down. This is every parent's nightmare. Talk about this to counselors, parents or friends. Let it out. Don't hold it in."
Ward and Sheriff Owens invited the group to caravan down to the scrap auto yard on Museum Road to look at the accident vehicle.
"I just want to make you aware of what can happen in the blink of an eye," Owens said.
He explained that when he was a teenager a group of young people were killed in an auto accident, and the police invited the public to look at the car.
"To this day I can still recall (the sight of) that car."
The sheriff apparently wanted to instill the same image in Brookings' teenagers.
In a dusty lot off Highway 101 mourners gathered around a misshapen metallic object covered by a tarp.
Ward told the crowd, "I really want you to get a good look at the impact of this."
With theatrical flair Ward and two helpers removed the tarp from the crushed blue Acura. There was a deafening silence, broken only by a quick gasp, then muffled sobs from Morris' two sisters who stood nearby with their hands over their faces, having covered their eyes the moment the wreck was revealed.
The crowd just stared at the twisted, shattered semblance of what had once been an automobile. The Bruins license plate cover on the front bumper remained intact, a reminder the driver was only in high school.
The silence seemed to last an eternity. No one moved, as if one step would place them within the grasp of the same hand of fate as the car's former occupants.
But the car was empty now, just a lonely sentinel surrounded by other crashed up vehicles; symbols of other people's split-second mistakes.
Gradually, people began to move toward the vehicle with slow careful steps. The dream-like atmosphere was never broken; teenagers took a silent vigil around the Acura, staring into its guts in solemn silence.
Despite the sweltering heat, Morris' sister, Helena, kept stretching the sleeves of her hooded sweatshirt around her hands like she was freezing.
"I think people will learn from this," said Morris' friend, Justin Oliver. "Steve was a good friend and a great athlete and I loved him."
When the crowd slowly filtered out of the auto wrecking yard, Helena Morris left a red rose on the hood of her brother's car.