GRANDVIEW — The day after two teenagers died in a car accident on a country road, family and friends huddled and embraced under a thicket of trees near the scene.
White and red flowers were placed at the tree trunks. Fog rolled in and out. Mourners sniffled and laughed through hushed conversations, their feet hardly making a sound as they tromped through the soggy brush.
The loosely knit group of 30 or so described Kevin Lopez and Carlos Ochoa, both Grandview High School juniors, as happy boys with a fondness for jokes, laughter and video games.
The two 16-year-olds died Tuesday night from injuries sustained during a crash on Evans Road, north of Grandview, when their Dodge Neon careened off the road, flipped and bounced, coming to rest in tree branches about 10 feet off the ground.
The driver was Jovannie Razo, 17, also a Grandview High School student, who was in critical condition Wednesday at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland.
“He was the best,” said Diego Gonzalez of his nephew Lopez, who was particularly known for pranks.
In fact, hours before the 6:20 p.m. crash near the line between Benton and Yakima counties, Lopez had been dishing out a few good-natured ribs, said Gonzalez as he huddled with other family members, including the boys’ mother. “I never thought I was never going to see him again.”
Ochoa’s mother, Leticia Ochoa, reached by phone at home, called her son “simpatico,” Spanish for kind. “He was caring and playful with (his) little sisters,” she said through an interpreter.
Authorities are still investigating, but they do not suspect alcohol or drugs played a role.
Speed did, however, said Deputy Glen Thompson of the Benton County Sheriff’s Department. Investigators suspect the Neon SRT was traveling eastbound well above the 50-mph speed limit when it hit the curve.
Deputies plan to return to the scene Friday with crash investigators from the Washington State Patrol to survey in more detail, Thompson said.
Speeding and youth are a dangerous combination, according to statistics of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
In the state, drivers between the ages of 16 and 25 were involved in nearly four of every 10 fatal crashes between 2004 and 2008. Meanwhile, more than half of the people who died in speeding-related crashes were between the ages of 16 and 30.
Yakima County accounted for 7 percent — fourth highest in the state — of the fatal collisions involving young drivers in that period. Tuesday’s accident happened in Benton County, though Grandview is in Yakima County.
Kevin Chase, superintendent of the Grandview School District, said the two victims were in good standing and well liked at the high school, where the mood was somber. Staff members were visibly upset during an early morning meeting to discuss the incident, he said.
Several students gathered on their own for a moment of silence around the flagpole at the entrance before classes, with the senior class president sharing a few words.
Lopez was an accomplished woodworking student eyeing a career in construction, Chase said.
Fellow students lauded Ochoa for his good advice and ability to cheer others up, as well as his jokes, Chase said. Ochoa had participated in cross country, wrestling and track.
The three friends may have been headed to Gravity Hill, a remote road on the Rattlesnake Ridge about 12 miles northwest of Grandview on which cars appear to roll uphill. The spot is a popular attraction for teenagers and the source of many ghost stories and spooky pranks.
Friends said the boys made recent posts on Facebook about the trip and had been inviting classmates along for the ride earlier in the day. Two cars of students were headed to the hill, Thompson said. Razo’s car was in the lead and had sped up out of the sight of their friends moments before the crash, he said.
“I said it was a waste of gas, don’t go,” said a tearful Zakery Castellanos, another junior and one of many students who left school Wednesday to visit the scene, finding personal effects of their friends, including a T-shirt, school papers and a phone battery.
Several fellow students recalled sharing inside jokes — calling each other “fat,” for example — with the two and how teachers often grew frustrated with their classroom giggling.
“Now that he’s gone, it’s just not going to be the same,” said Javier Arredondo, referring to Ochoa.
The crash took an emotional toll on the public safety officials who responded, said Lt. Chuck Jones of the Benton County Sheriff’s office. Many of the deputies are parents themselves.
“It’s just sad,” he said. “It tears you up. I had trouble sleeping last night.”
It was the second wreck in the past three months to claim the life of a Lower Valley high school student.
On Oct. 20, Prosser High School freshman Alejandra Islas, 14, died while returning home from a soccer game when the vehicle she was riding in was struck on State Route 22. Her mother, Ilda, also died in the crash. Investigators blamed inattention on the part of the driver of the other vehicle for that collision.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.