Joe Vanella stood amid the scattered bouquets, stuffed animals, and tipped-over tealight candles on the steps of Malden High School on Sunday night, struggling to find words worthy of his daughter.
Julia Vanella, 16, of Malden died in a car crash on icy roads in Wakefield, N.H., Saturday, authorities said. She was in the passenger seat of a sport utility vehicle, driven by her mother, Lisa Vanella, 42, when the car veered into oncoming traffic and crashed into a Jeep, according to police. The teenager was pronounced dead at the scene.
“Just always smiling, always goofing around trying to raise someone’s spirits who was down,” her father said. Joe Vanella lives in Everett and declined to speak about details of the crash.
Dozens of teens in knit caps and hooded sweatshirts stood in small packs on the steps below him hugging and holding vigil for his daughter.
They described her as a bubbly dancer and the rock everyone leaned on when they needed compassion or a laugh.
“In situations like these, she was the person we turned to and now she’s not here, and we don’t know how to handle it,” said Shannon Bruce, 18, of Everett. Bruce danced with Vanella for about a decade at On Pointe Dance Academy in Everett.
Elizabeth Beaton, an 18-year-old from Malden who is also a dancer, said: “I don’t think it’s hit anyone completely because she was the person who was always around for everyone.”
Ashley Sarno, a 19-year-old from Revere, said she and the other dancers at On Pointe probably met Vanella when they were about 9 years old.
“She was always the one to make you laugh in a serious class,” Sarno said.
The dancers said Vanella’s mother and 13-year-old sister, Jenna , who was in the back seat of the SUV, were like family to the teens at On Pointe. Both her mother and sister were hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening, police said.
Police said the driver of the Jeep, Penny Cotreau, 41, of Wakefield, N.H., and her passengers, Wesley Huckins, 45, and Serena Avery, 13, both of Milton, N.H., also suffered injuries not believed to be life threatening.
The cause of the crash remained under investigation Sunday, but Wakefield, N.H., police Sergeant Michael Fenton said slippery frozen roads were a likely factor. The Wakefield Police Department and Carroll County Sheriff’s Department are investigating.
Bruce said the On Pointe dancers might dedicate their June recital to Vanella.
“It’s going to be so hard to go in there and not have her waiting at the door,” Bruce said.
Some high school students in the crowd Sunday said they did not know Vanella but still felt as if part of their collective whole was missing.
“Everyone feels like a piece of our heart is gone,” said Dylan Hamilton, a 16-year-old Malden High School junior.
The school’s principal told the crowd that classes will resume tomorrow and the doorstep memorial will be moved into the lobby.
“Tomorrow will be a very tough day for all of us,” Hamilton said. “But we will get through it as a school, as a family, and hopefully not forget, but remember who Julia was.”