Claflin University is grieving the loss of four students in a Columbia wreck Thursday evening – each of them from a small town in South Carolina.
Melvin Lonell Jackson Jr., 21, of Chester; Darrell Renard Pendergrass, 21, of Society Hill; and Keeron Q. McElveen, 18, of Kingstree, died at the scene of the I-77 wreck, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said Friday.
Jamarius Kel’Shawn Bruce, 19, of Darlington, was taken to Palmetto Health Richland hospital, where he, too, died from multiple traumas suffered in the wreck, Watts said.
All four were sport management majors at Claflin, a university spokesman said.
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A fifth student, Gernardo Cato, a freshman from Goose Creek, remains in a Columbia hospital.
During a noon prayer service on campus Friday, some 900 Claflin faculty, students and staff mourned the loss of “visionary leaders.”
“This will be one of those defining moments for us, especially the student body,” President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale said at the W.V. Middleton Fine Arts Center. “These students were a part of a core of students serving the community. They would have been leaders in organizations, one of them being Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. They would have been involved in being involved. Being committed to giving back and serving.”
Dominique Riggins, the student government association president, spoke at the service not only as a voice for the student body but also as a good friend of all four. One of them was a fraternity brother.
“Today we had a memorial celebrating not only students, but brothers, friends, family members and student leaders,” he said. “This type of service shows that we are a family. When something happens to one, it happens to all.”
Tisdale added, “We consider and talk about Claflin University as a family, and the student body witnessed what happens when there is tragedy. We all come together. We rally. We are supportive.”
Through a rousing rendition of “It’s Gonna Get Better,” the university’s choir encouraged students to not be discouraged – to believe that things are going to get better.
“God will take us through this season of sorrow and grief,” Tisdale said.
The Rev. Todd Brown told the gathering: “My words will not reach where you are hurting. ...
“You will see your brothers again.”
At the time, the university is not planning another campuswide memorial but expects classes, student organizations and religious life groups to host programs.
Counseling services are available at the university’s Corson Hall and in the chaplain’s office. The university’s chapel will also remain open for students.
The wreck involved two vehicles at about 5:45 p.m. on I-77 between mile markers 22 and 23 near northeast Columbia’s Killian Road.
According to the South Carolina Highway Patrol, a Ford Escape was traveling south on I-77 when the driver lost control of the sports utility vehicle. The SUV crossed the median and ran into the northbound lanes, colliding with a Toyota SUV.
Watts said Jackson was the driver and Pendergrass was in the Ford’s front passenger seat. Both wore seatbelts, Watts said.
McElveen and Bruce, who were in the rear seats and not wearing seat belts, were ejected from the vehicle, Watts said. Watts said all died from trauma.
A person in the Toyota was taken to the hospital. That person’s condition was not known Friday.
The S.C. Highway Patrol is investigating.