A Grief Beyond Words

updated 07/16/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was 2:10 in the morning when Stephanie Shirley took the call—a call no mother should have to take. "The police officer said, 'Please come to the front door,' and I said, 'No, please don't make me come to the door because I know it's not good news,'" says Shirley, 50, who just hours earlier on June 26 had let her only child, Katie, 18, take a trip with friends to a nearby lakeside cottage. "And he said, 'Mrs. Shirley...' and I said, 'Please don't make me come to the door, please don't make me come to the door.' And he said, 'We really need to see you.'"

The news was crushing: Katie and four of her girlfriends were dead. They died when their SUV slammed head-on into a tractor-trailer on a rural highway 30 minutes outside their hometown of Fairport, N.Y. Four other friends, driving in a car behind them, witnessed the crash and fiery explosion. Four of the victims were cheerleaders; all of them had graduated high school just five days before and were headed to college in the fall; all, say friends, were bright and funny and full of life. "This is the worst accident we've ever investigated," says Sgt. Tate Colburn of the Ontario County sheriff's department. "To have five young girls who have their whole lives in front of them? It's a major blow."

It seemed too brutal a tragedy for any one town to bear—so much goodness and promise, gone so suddenly. But the people of Fairport, a suburb of neatly kept homes and manicured lawns in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, found that they could bear it as long as they bore it together. Neighbors brought food for grieving families; shocked students huddled close on campus.

But what helped most of all, in the days after the crash, was simply remembering the girls—Hannah Congdon, Bailey Goodman, Meredith McClure, Sara Monnat and Katie Shirley. Remembering how the four cheerleaders, friends since childhood, had been part of the squad that won the American Open cheerleading competition in Orlando in March, "one of the greatest moments in their lives," says their coach, Elaine Deignan, 35. How Katie called herself princess and wore a tiara to school on her 18th birthday, and how she took a job at American Eagle but "didn't earn any money because she spent 10 times more than she made on clothes," says her mom. How Meredith made the varsity team as a freshman and "would try anything to make herself better," says her friend Allison Murphy. "She had such a beautiful presence." How Bailey was the funny one who liked to make people laugh, "and could make friends with anyone in two seconds," says Allison.

How Hannah was the sparkplug of the group, and how she took a school trip to India to help tsunami victims because "she was one of the most considerate, happy, smiling people I've ever known," says her dad, Terry. How Sara was strong and confident and "called herself the boss because she liked to be in control," says her friend Sara Dastin. "And even if you were fighting you knew she was there to lean on." That was how it was with all the girls—always there for each other. "They were like sisters," says Sara Monnat's father, Jim. "They'd fight one day and be best friends the next."

Then came their fateful trip, which started with a text message: "Let's go." "Bailey wanted to go to her family's cottage so she texted all of us," says Riley Hall, 18, who signed up for the last-minute, one-hour trip to Keuka Lake and was driving the car behind Bailey's Chevy TrailBlazer. The nine friends set out around 9:30 p.m. and 30 minutes later were heading east on Routes 5 and 20, a two-lane, 55-mph road. "Bailey went around a car to pass and we didn't see any other cars," says Riley. "But then four seconds later, Keisha in my backseat goes, 'Is that a truck?' and then we all go, 'Oh my God!' and I slammed on my brakes. And then the truck hit Bailey's car."

Police say Bailey had just passed a van and returned to her lane when she inexplicably swerved back into oncoming traffic. The collision knocked the SUV off the road, and it burst into flames 50 feet high; all the girls were likely killed instantly (the truck driver survived). "We were all just screaming and crying," says Riley, who ran to the scene. "I can't get the picture of the car on fire out of my head, because there was nothing we could do."

Over the next few hours, word filtered back to Fairport that something horrible had happened. Relatives rushed to the hospital, not sure who had lived or died. "When the doctors told everyone, I remember hearing parents screaming from five rooms away," says Riley. The Fairport High School principal, David Paddock, e-mailed parents shortly after 4 a.m. and said the school would be open for anyone who wanted to come; around 5 a.m. he joined about 150 kids on campus to watch the sun come up. "We were all feeling so totally devastated that we weren't even sure there was going to be another sunrise," says Paddock. "It was encouraging to know there would be another day."

For others, finding any solace was hard. "Someone said, 'God wants Katie at His table.' And I said, 'I want her at my table,'" says her mother. "I wasn't ready to give her to God. I wanted to see her grow. I wanted to be a grandma." Not long after the crash the families of best friends Hannah and Meredith went together to pick out cemetery plots. "They were inseparable, and we bought plots so they'll be next to each other," says Terry Congdon. "And Bailey's going to be next door. It's funny what our lives have been reduced to, getting excited about cemetery plots, but it's really pretty there."

On the campus of Fairport High, students set up a sweeping memorial, featuring thousands of tea lights and flowers, on a spot known as the Hill. "I've been there every night since," says Courtney Claypoole, 17, who graduated with the victims. "It's the only place to come where if you start crying there's always someone there to give you a hug." On July 2 thousands of mourners turned out for the funerals of four of the victims. Young men in dark suits guided caskets into the churches; students read poems and told stories about their friends.

Autopsy and drug test results were unavailable at press time; the truck driver, who tried to avoid the SUV, was not ticketed. Bailey Goodman was behind the wheel of the SUV with a junior license, which means she technically shouldn't have been on the road after 9 p.m. The accident "might make parents have another discussion with their children about driving," says Sergeant Colburn. "It might make others go home and give their kids another hug." Four days after the accident, visitors continued to visit the crash site, which still smelled of smoke and fuel. There was a charred fence post and a tree with blackened leaves. But there were also hundreds of flowers, dozens of stuffed animals and a slew of photos—of the girls laughing, smiling, cheering. "Heaven is lucky to have such beautiful angels," reads one note left there. "Shine your love on us."

It is how some classmates are picturing their friends—together, as always. "They're probably having a pajama party up there, jumping from cloud to cloud," says Allison Murphy. "And they're telling us, 'Please smile.'" Yet no one expects that the pain of losing Hannah, Meredith, Sara, Bailey and Katie will go away, or even lessen, anytime soon. "We went to pick out Katie's urn, and what I wanted to buy was a comforter and sheets for her dorm room," says her mother. "I knew she was going to leave us someday. I knew she was going to move on and build a life. But I didn't think that I'd never see her again."

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