September 5, 2013 Updated: September 6, 2013 at 7:17 am
Two separate car crashes about 14 hours apart on the same road, in almost the same spot claimed the lives of two Calhan students and left a third in critical condition.
"I think it was just bad luck that they happened at the same spot," Tim Ortiz, a technician with the Colorado State Patrol, said Thursday.
The first crash happened just before 8 p.m. Wednesday when 16-year-old Jourdan Ellis lost control of a 1994 Saturn traveling east on Funk Road about 2.4 miles east of Calhan Highway, Ortiz said.
The Saturn went off the right side of the road, spun clockwise and then collided with a fence while rolling once, he said.
Jourdan, a junior and lineman for the high school football team and a baseball player, was taken to Memorial Hospital Central and is in critical condition, according to the Calhan School District. It's unknown if Jourdan was wearing a seatbelt.
His younger sister, 14-year-old Jae Ellis,who was wearing a seatbelt, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Just after 10 a.m. Thursday, another student wrecked about 100 feet west of the location of Wednesday night's crash.
Sixteen-year-old Tiffany O'Neill was eastbound on Funk Road in a 1997 Chrysler and lost control, causing the vehicle to go off the left side of the road. The vehicle rolled twice and hit a fence, and O'Neill, who wasn't wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle. O'Neill was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The two tragedies hit the tight-knit rural school district 35 miles northeast of Colorado Springs hard. Calhan School District RJ1, has 535 students all housed in one large school building, grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
"Everybody knows everybody," said School Board President Maria Herndon. "It's a tragedy, first hearing about Jae and Jourdan last night and then Tiffany today. They are beautiful kids."
She urged students and families to avail themselves of the counselors who will be on hand Friday and next week. "Grief can hit them out of nowhere. Maybe not right now, but maybe later in class or somewhere else."
Calhan Superintendent Linda Miller, said in a letter to parents and students: "The death of any young person is a loss, which in one way or another, diminishes each of us. The tragic circumstances of Jae's death, Tiffany's death, and Jourdan's injuries are shocking and difficult to both understand and accept."
In an interview, Miller said, "But the faculty and staff and community has come together in a powerful way."
She said that Jae, a ninth grader, was "a bright spot, a girl who always had a smile on her face. She was well liked by her peers, a good student and involved in many activities. She was an all around great kid. "
Tiffany too was a bright spot, Miller said. A sophomore, she had lots of friends and was involved in many activities.
Miller added, "They will be much missed. Calhan will survive this, but it will be a long process."
She said Jourdan, who is hospitalized in critical condition, "is a really well-liked young man who always works hard to do the right things." She said that this past summer he helped with a construction project at the school, doing concrete work. "He is loved by classmates and the team."
Jourdan had said in an interview with the Gazette earlier this week that the team was often down when it headed into a game with big rival Peyton. But this year, he said, "we're coming off a big win over Denver Christian, and our heads are held high. It's a big rivalry. Who's not going to be pumped for a big rivalry game?"
Miller said that the football game at 7 p.m., Friday will go on as planned. "The kids need an outlet, and we will have a memorial activity so they can pay tribute to the lives of their classmates."
When the administrators heard about the first fatality Wednesday night they contacted as many staff members as possible so they could to help the students cope. They pulled together a crisis team of counselors and school psychologists through Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which provides assistance of many kinds to districts. Calhan received help Thursday from some of the BOCES members, including from rural school districts Peyton, Miami-Yoder, Elbert, Ellicott and others. A team of victim advocates from the El Paso County Sheriff's Department also assisted.
The atmosphere at the school Thursday was somber.
"There were lots of tears and sadness," Miller said. "And it is not just the kids. Many people out here are involved with the school and have been friends with them. It affects us all."
In a note to parents on the Calhan website, Miller said: "The crisis team is doing everything they can to help your child and our staff through this heartbreaking experience. You may anticipate more questions and a need to talk about the accident, Jourdan's condition, Tiffany's death, and Jae's death at home."
Ortiz, of the state patrol, said both crashes are under investigation. He said there isn't a problem with the road in that area.
"It's just unfortunate incidents," he said.