Five Vermont high school students died in a Saturday crash involving a wrong-way driver, the first in a series of collisions that left several other people injured and at least two vehicles — including a stolen police cruiser — ablaze, Vermont State Police said.
Those killed included four juniors at Harwood Union High School in Moretown and a student who had previously attended the school, according to Lisa Atwood, one of the co-principals. She said the school and the towns it serves are grappling with the unfathomable loss of promising young lives.
The five students were “really great kids that had a really bright future ahead of them,” she said. “It’s just a tremendous loss to our community.”
State Police identified the students as Eli Brookens, 16, of Waterbury, Vt.; Mary Harris, 16, and Cyrus Zschau, 16, both of Moretown, Vt.; and Fayston, Vt., residents Liam Hale, 15, and Janie Cozzi, 15, who was not currently enrolled at Harwood Union, according to Atwood.
State Police dispatchers began receiving calls about a pickup truck that was headed north in a southbound lane of Interstate 89 just before 11:45 p.m. Saturday. As state and local police searched for it, a call came in a few minutes before midnight reporting a crash on Interstate 89 in Williston, Vt., State Police said in a statement.
A Williston police officer arrived to find two vehicles that had collided, including a Toyota Tacoma operated by the wrong-way driver. A Volkswagen Jetta was burning in the highway median with the teenagers still inside, State Police said.
The officer raced toward the flames with a fire extinguisher and pulled one girl from the Volkswagen.
As he tried to extinguish the fire, State Police said, the officer looked back at his cruiser and saw Steven D. Bourgoin, 36, step inside and speed away, headed south.
After the officer reported his cruiser stolen, a Richmond, Vt., officer tried to intercept Bourgoin, but Bourgoin turned around and again drove north in a southbound lane, State Police said.
As he sped away, Bourgoin hit several more vehicles, causing multiple injuries and leaving the police cruiser in flames, State Police said.
Officers took Bourgoin into custody and took him and those injured in the later crashes to the University of Vermont Medical Center. State Police said they did not know whether he was involved in the initial crash. It was unclear Sunday whether Bourgoin had an attorney.
Bourgoin and the other people injured are expected to survive.
State Police Captain Dan Trudeau said Sunday evening that no charges had yet been filed.
Lee-Ann Martin, the wife of the chairman of the Moretown Selectboard, said she and her husband are close friends with the Harris family and remember Mary Harris as a terrific athlete, student, and friend.
She said Harris was active in her Catholic church and helped her community whenever possible.
“Always a peacemaker and very giving,” she said. “You can never say anything bad about Mary.”
She said Zschau was a “great little boy” and a talented baseball player.
William Shepeluk, the municipal manager of Waterbury, said the deaths had left many people grieving in the six towns served by Harwood Union High School.
“There’s going to be a lot of people impacted by this,” he said.
“The junior class, I’m sure it’s just a couple hundred kids altogether . . . It’s a very tight-knit school, so everybody’s going to know who these kids are.”
Atwood, the school’s co-principal, said the school had opened on Sunday for the community to gather and would hold a candlelight vigil on Monday evening.
She said the students killed had known each other since elementary school. Brookens, Harris, and Zschau played on the high school’s soccer teams, she said.
“They were all well-liked, outstanding members of our community, involved in our school community,” Atwood said.
Atwood said she and fellow principal Amy Rex had visited the families of all five students on Sunday.
“They’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other and process it,” she said. “Our communities will come together to support them, as well as our students, and figure it out together.”Globe correspondent Felicia Gans contributed to this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.