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Northeastern State University mourns 5 students killed in crash

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - It was about 10:40 Sunday night when five Northeastern State University students were taking a drive down a road. Unfortunately, the drive became tragic when the driver lost control of the vehicle, plummeting about 35 feet into a river.

“He was a genuine, really genuine kid, really great guy,” said Trevor Lindley.

“He was always in good mood. He was always smiling. He was always trying to make people happy,” said Tim Gardenhigh.

Lindley and Gardenhigh remember their friend, Drake Wells.

Wells and four other NSU students were out on the night drive, celebrating the 19th birthday of Wells. However, the night of fun took a tragic turn.

“We left chapter around like 9:45, so it was like, man, between that time, like how did all this just happen?” Gardenhigh said.

It was about an hour after that when the five students were killed.

“When I found out, I was just devastated. I knew it was Donovan,” said Nicholas Young.

Eighteen-year-old Donovan Caldwell was driving down Wellings Bridge when he allegedly lost control of his pickup.

The truck veered and crossed over the northbound lane, through the railing, falling about 35 feet into the Illinois River, killing the two young men and three young women, the oldest only 19 years old.

The news is sending shockwaves throughout the NSU campus in Tahlequah.

“I think we're all just trying to figure out what do you to do to honor the students but, in the same time, try to figure out how do folks cope with that and deal with it as things move,” said Jerrid Freeman, vice president of Student Affairs.

Those close to the victims said the next step is remembering those they lost.

“I can't believe that he's gone. You just got to cherish life,” Young said.

Life the young people said they will no longer take for granted.

“You could be here at 10:30 but then, at 10:31, be gone,” Gardenhigh said.

The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

The university is holding a vigil at 7:30 p.m. Monday night for the victims:

"Dear NSU Family,

Just before 1:00 am, I was contacted by Campus Police and informed that five NSU students were killed in an auto accident in proximity to the Welling Bridge, south of Tahlequah. The news was devastating and crushing.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol reports the driver was as 18-year-old Donovan Caldwell of Muskogee. The passengers were identified as 18-year-old Jessica Swartwout of McAlester; 19-year-old Drake Wells of Thackerville; 18-year-old Rhianna Seely of Salina and 18-year-old Lily Murphy of Gentry, AR. Their families have been notified.

I cannot fathom the pain the families and friends of these young people are going through as a result of this terrible and tragic accident. My thoughts and prayers are with them this morning.

Activities have been underway throughout the night to provide counselors for the friends and co-students. Notification of the faculty who taught the students is underway. If you feel you need help in any way, please contact HawkReach Counseling Services at 918-444-2042 or Student Affairs at 918-444-2120. I have every confidence in the compassion of the NSU family to pull together and support those who are experiencing so much pain and sadness.

This will have a profound effect on all of us and Northeastern State University for many years to come. Supporting our students, faculty and staff will remain our top priority.

The NSU Community will be updated regarding memorial services and other related details as they become available.

Steve Turner Ph.D.
Northeastern State University"