Vigil draws hundreds
Hundreds of people, black and white, young and old, teachers, clergy, students, strangers and friends assembled behind Patterson Junior High School Monday evening in a display of empathy and support for a family’s horrendous weekend loss.
The candlelight vigil was for four family members killed Saturday when a failed tire apparently caused the vehicle LaDonna Cheatham, 36, of Patterson, was driving to cross the median of U.S. 90 and collide head on with a school bus carrying the Lafayette High baseball team traveling to Berwick.
She was pronounced dead on the scene along with two of her children, Destiny Cheatham, 6, and Marcus Cheatham, 16, who lived in Terrebonne Parish, and her nephew, Dewayne Escort, 14.
Ellen Lemoine, a Patterson High School secretary, confirmed this morning that Escort’s first name is Dewayne. Original reports from the state police had the name spelled Dwayne.
Relatives, friends, speakers and crowd shared in a communion of pain and love. A white man hugged a little black girl as she wept; classmates held each other as they grieved in silence with closed eyes; tears trickled, sometimes flowed, down the cheeks of people as they hugged each other realizing how fleeting life can be.
Between sobs, and as tear followed tear down her cheeks, Deanna Cheatham, 7, said she did not want to get on the school bus because it would bring her sorrow to get off the bus without holding the hand of her little sister, Destiny. With lips quivering, the second-grader stopped and then opened her mouth to speak but words would not flow as easily as tears.
From the crowd someone offered soothing comfort, “That’s alright baby. Take your time. We love you.”
Oscar West, a Houma church minister, encouraged family and friends to be strong.
“But, being strong does not mean you cannot cry; it means that you look to the One that one day can dry your tears away,” West counseled.
West said a donation fund to assist in the funeral expenses has been set up. Donations to the Cheatham-Escort Benefit can be made at any Whitney or Hancock bank.
Destiny’s kindergarten teacher at Hattie Watts Elementary, Tammy Craddock, struggled to find the words to express her emotions. The struggle itself said more than a thousand words.
Craddock was able to sum up her emotions simply saying, “We are all going to miss her. We love her.”
De’Asia Cambell, 13, said that it is hard for her to accept that Dewayne, her brother, had died.
“He is up in heaven now. I am sure he is riding in his Camaro up there,” De’Asia said.
Markell Davis, freshman at Patterson High, called Dewayne a “little buddy to me … who was like a brother.”
“I would take a bullet for him … I love the man with all my heart,” Davis said of his friend.
Quantravious Hill, 15, said Dewayne told him that his grandmother said all she wanted from Dewayne was for him to do his best and make his life a success.
“Now he is dead. He won’t be a success, but he is in heaven now,” Hill said.
Dakota Voisin said he lost a friend who he had cherished with Dewayne’s death. In memory of his friend he had set up an Instagram account that by Tuesday morning had 368 followers. The account is Rest_Easy_Dewayne
A fifth occupant in Cheatham’s vehicle was 17-year-old Mark Cheatham, sibling to two of the victims. He attended the event on crutches and at one point was overcome with grief and collapsed into the arms of relatives.
Mark Cheatham had been airlifted to Thibodeaux Regional Medical Center, according to Patterson police officer Kevin Kinslow who was the first officer on the scene. Kinslow said he helped in the extrication of the teenager Saturday and attempted to keep him calm despite Cheatham’s constant inquiries on the wellbeing of his family.
After the vigil was over Patterson Police Chief Patrick LaSalle remarked how the community had come together.
“We have never done anything this beautiful before. This is why I am proud of my community,”
Mayor Rodney Grogan pointed out that the support for the family and friends shown during the vigil was one of a parish-wide community that knew no boundaries in race, color or age.
“We see many municipalities, bloodlines, education and religious representatives here,” Grogan said. “These four deaths have brought us all together.”
None of the deceased were wearing seatbelts although Mark Cheatham was wearing one.
“This was a horrible, horrible accident,” Kinslow said. “I would encourage everybody to wear seatbelts not only because it is the law but do it for your own family’s safety.”
According to the state police there were 30 students and five adults on the bus. One adult sustained moderate injuries and was transported to a local area hospital. Seven of the students on the bus were transported to area hospitals with minor injuries.
The investigation into the accident is ongoing. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will have intermittent lane closures on U.S. 90 between La. 317 and La. 182 to allow Louisiana State Police to reconstruct the scene of the crash. The intermittent lane closures are estimated to take place from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.
State police spokesman Tfc. Stephen Hammons said that a scene reconstruction is standard procedure for a fatal crash.