BURRILLVILLE – Shannon Heil and Markell Torres hadn’t known each other long, but they bonded quickly through a mutual passion for competitive cheerleading – something they were both very good at.
Their brief time together ended tragically on a rural stretch of Route 102 Thursday afternoon in one of the most violent car crashes Police Chief Stephen J. Lynch has ever seen.
“It was a nasty car accident ... just devastating,” said Lynch, his voice trailing off.
Heil, 19, of Burrillville, was driving northbound in a white Ford Focus with two passengers, including Torres, when she crashed head-on into an oncoming Dodge Caravan. Heil and Torres, also 19, of Easthampton, Mass., who was riding in the back seat of the Focus, were both killed. A front seat passenger, William Scurry, 21, of Woonsocket, escaped with minor injuries, but the operator of the van, Stephanie Jalette, 34, also of Burrillville, was LifeFlighted to Rhode Island Hospital. Her condition was listed as serious Friday, police said.
The impact of the crash turned Heil’s compact car into a mangled heap of metal trapping the two teens. Both had to be removed with a hydraulic saw. Tears were visible in the eyes of firefighters responding to the scene, and shaken police officers gathered for a moment of silent reflection after the death toll was confirmed, officials said.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation, though police say they are leaning toward some form of operator error. Major Lareto Guglietta said there is no evidence that texting while driving played a role, but he said the police have subpoenaed the drivers’ telephone records so it can be ruled in or out.
The police said the accident happened about 2000 feet south of Glen Meadow Lane, not far from the scene of another fatal motor vehicle crash about a week ago. Despite the proximity of the two incidents, police said there does not appear to be any inherently unsafe condition on Route 102 in the area that might have played a role in either crash. The road is posted for 50 mph.
Heil was a longtime member of the Superior Cheer All Stars, a completive cheerleading squad at 65 Main St. in Woonsocket, where friends and teammates held a somber candlelight vigil in her memory hours after the crash.
“RIP Shay,” said a message made from candle wax dribbled on the sidewalk in front of the entrance on Friday, while a sympathy card dangled from the doorknob.
Dozens of candles formed a makeshift memorial in front of the cheerleading studio, and friends were still stopping by all day on Friday to pay their respects.
Kimberly Laird, 19, said Heil was a standout dancer and played the central role of “point” in many performances. In cheerleading parlance, it’s like being the star of the show.
Her fiery red hair and bold moves attracted a lot of attention and left spectators asking questions about her after they saw her perform, said Laird.
“The number one thing they always called her was fierce,” said Laird. “She had the red hair, she was always there, she was always the point.”
Heil had just graduated from Toni & Guy’s Hairdressing Academy in Cranston and had a flair for makeup and fashion. Mark McBride, a tattoo artist from Bellingham who called her a client said she once came in the studio with her hair dyed pink. She had her heart set on becoming a beautician, and she had the perfect personality for it.
“She was basically friends with everyone who crossed her path,” said McBride.
Ashley Carlson, 19, a friend of Heil’s since they were toddlers, said Heil grew up in Woonsocket and also had a job at Domino’s Pizza on Main Street. She was supposed to report for her shift on Thursday night.
She said Heil and Torres were not boyfriend and girlfriend, but they shared “a strong chemistry” and spent a lot of time together. She said Heil had recently made arrangements to share an apartment in Woonsocket with a girlfriend about her age.
“This was her town, this is where she grew up,” said Carlson, blinking back tears as she sat with her back resting against the door of Superior Cheer. “She was always positive energy to be around. I just don’t know what to say, honestly.”
Scurry, the front seat passenger in Heil’s car, also had ties to Superior Cheer. He worked there was a coach. according to Dawn Castonguay, the owner of the studio.
Torres was a member of the East Celebrity Elite cheerleading squad in Tewskbury, Mass., and competed on a team with the most experienced members, according to Cheryl Pasinato, the owner of the studio.
Torres had only been with the team a year but had been a member of his high school varsity cheerleading squad. Torres was respected and admired by his teammates at ECE, where he got along easily with others.
“He was living his dream” said Pasinato. “He was doing what he always wanted to do.”