A June 4 crash that claimed the young lives of four former and current South Pittsburg High School football players leaves behind lasting uncertainty for their families, and organizations in the town are spearheading a drive to provide ongoing help to the loved ones they left behind and the teen who survived the crash and is still recovering.
Jamal Allen, 20, Jayven Martin, 22, Sayveon Martin, 20, and Jailyn Pellam, 16, were killed when the 2010 Toyota Camry they were in crossed the centerline of South Pittsburg Mountain Road and struck a tree about 1:40 that Saturday morning, according to the Tennessee Highway Patrol and school officials. A 17-year-old passenger, who hasn't been named, was airlifted to a local hospital and continues to recover.
Funeral services for Allen were held June 10 and for the Martin brothers and Pellam on June 11, according to their obituaries.
In the days following the crash, the National Cornbread Festival - the town's iconic annual event for the past quarter-century - has donated $10,000 to launch a fund at a local bank set up to benefit the five families of the crash victims, according to school and National Cornbread Festival officials.
For Paige Hill, the high school's principal, it's not easy to describe the impact of the loss on the school and the community or the importance of those from near and far who have shown support for the five families stricken by the tragedy.
Hill said Wednesday in a phone interview the fund started by the Cornbread Festival's donation will pay for the four boys' funerals, first of all, and then for ongoing expenses for those families and the family of the 17-year-old who is still recovering from his injuries.
Hill called him "our little miracle."
The loss strikes deep, according to Hill.
"It's rough. Before I was principal, I had four of the five as students," Hill said of the five victims.
She wasn't Jailyn's teacher but was his principal, she said.
"They are my kids - these are all our kids. I want people to know our community is so close, we know all these kids personally," she said. "Our school has 405 kids, 7-12, so everybody knows everybody and everybody is touched by something like this happening."
South Pittsburg is reeling, she said.
"It was certainly hard for everyone in the community to process a tragedy of this magnitude," Hill said. "Our kids are really having a difficult time."
Hill said counselors have been available at the school for students and adults.
"It's for anyone who needs to come in," she said, noting North Jackson Nursing Home in nearby Bridgeport, Alabama, and Marion County school board members have provided snacks for those seeking help.
But the victims' families also need support going forward, and there's a way for people to lend a hand, according to Hill and National Cornbread Festival President Beth Duggar and member of the organization, Shawn Henson.
Henson said in recent phone interviews the festival benefits directly from volunteerism at the high school, and festival officials wanted to recognize that link with strong support.
"The community opened up an account at Citzens Tri-County Bank to benefit the families of the boys who were killed and the one who is still recovering," Duggar said Wednesday in a phone interview. "The festival made the first donation of $10,000. Shawn said that when he took it to the bank, the teller saw the check and started crying.
"Everybody's still pretty torn up."
Like Hill, Duggar feels the connection personally.
"It might sound trite, but in South Pittsburg, when one hurts, we all do," she said. "We watched these boys grow up from little babies, and we've seen them achieve on the football field and in school. Everybody's just heartbroken about it, and we all know their parents and their grandparents. It was just devastating."
Duggar said students from the high school have invested countless hours volunteering at the festival over the years. A donation from the festival was fitting, but nothing replaces what was lost, she said.
"It was just so heartbreaking and tragic to see those young lives be lost before they even had a chance to show what they could give back to the community," she said.
Bank officials said those who wish to donate can go to any Citizens Tri-County Bank location in Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren or Warren counties and inform the teller they want to donate to the accident victims fund in South Pittsburg.
Hill said for those outside the area, another way to help is available.
"Our football coach, Wes Stone, set up a GoFundMe, as well, especially for those people who are out of town and can't go physically to the bank," she said.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.