Western Dubuque community mourns teens' deaths - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Western Dubuque community mourns teens' deaths

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DUBUQUE COUNTY (KWWL) -

People throughout the Western Dubuque Community School District are grieving following the Saturday deaths of four local teenagers.

According to the Dubuque County Sheriff's Office, Bryce Wilwert and Mitchell Kluesner of Epworth, Sean Kenneally of Peosta and Nick Kramer of Dyersville were riding in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, when they were struck by a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer. 24-year-old Joe Connolly was the driver of that truck, officials say. It happened at the intersection of Hartbecke and East Pleasant Grove roads in Dubuque County.

The four boys, all of whom were 14, died. Connolly was unharmed, but his two passengers, 25-year-old Joe Lucas of Epworth and 21-year-old Elissa Ericson of Cedar Rapids, were injured and treated at area hospitals.

Now the community is coping with their grief in the wake of this tragedy.

Funeral services for the boys:

Bryce Wilwert: http://www.reifffuneralhomeinc.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2623571&fh_id=11756

Sean Kenneally: http://www.reifffuneralhomeinc.com/fh/obituaries/obituary.cfm?o_id=2624218&fh_id=11756

Nicholas Kramer: http://www.kramerfuneral.com/book-of-memories/1920167/Kramer-Nicholas/service-details.php

Mitchell Kluesner's information has not been made official yet.

Wilwert is described as a "true farm boy," who, "always enjoyed being outdoors and hunting." Kluesner was the son of an Epworth fire lieutenant and grew up hanging around the fire department. Kramer leaves behind two brothers.

The four boys would have been incoming freshmen at Western Dubuque High School, where hundreds of students are getting their locker combinations and finding their classrooms Monday and Tuesday, as part of student orientation.

Western Dubuque High School principal Dave Hoeger said this year's orientation - normally a time of excitement and some nervousness - is noticeably somber, as classmates digest what happened.

"These are teenagers, and they haven't had to deal with a lot of this before, so they're kind of struggling with, you know, 'How do we go through this process?'" Hoeger said Monday afternoon. "I think that will surface a lot once school starts as well."

The boys spent sixth through eighth grade together at Drexler Middle School in Farley.

Incoming eighth grader Amanda Dougherty and her mom Julie Dougherty were at the school Monday afternoon for orientation. Amanda was friends with three of the four boys.

"A lot of them were really outgoing and funny, and they just kind of made class light up," she said. "They'd always come into our science classes and kind of talk with our teacher and kind of mess around."

She and her friends are struggling through this time together, she said.

"We're kind of devastated," Dougherty said. "Nothing ever has really happened like this, and so it's kind of overwhelming."

Her mother agreed, this is a blow to the entire community.

"We knew three of the four families through wrestling and then just living in Epworth and around in the community and schools, so it's really heartbreaking," she said. "It could've been anybody, any kids on that four-wheeler, on that Gator, and it could've been any of our kids. It's just hard to believe it's happened to our community, but there's a lot of community support."

Some of that support has come in the form of counseling offered by the school district. Since the boys were transitioning from middle school to high school, the district made counselors available at both Drexler Middle School and Western Dubuque High School on Monday and Tuesday.

The boys' eighth grade class at Drexler had 204 students in it.

Drexler principal Mary Jane Maher said dozens of students have been gathering at the school for comfort and counseling and to remember the four boys.

"They're going to be greatly, greatly missed," Maher said. "They were the kind of kids that were fun to have in your classroom, always bringing lots of energy, kids who really were good at building relationships with adults as well. Just the kind of kids teachers loved to have in class because they were full of that positive energy and always brought something fun to the classroom."

Western Dubuque School District superintendent Jeff Corkery said nobody in the community is untouched by this tragedy.

"It's unimaginable that, you know, four lives would be taken at such a young age and this fashion," he said. "It's pretty sobering to start the school year, and I think this is certainly going to be on everybody's mind for a long time."

The community held a prayer service Monday afternoon for the boys' families at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Peosta.

The Dubuque County Sheriff's Office continues to investigate the crash. Capt. Dale Snyder with the department said charges have not yet been filed against Connolly, the Dubuque County man who was driving the truck that hit the boys. KWWL asked him whether drunk or distracted driving were factors, but Snyder declined to comment on that, saying only that the matter "is under investigation."

Snyder said the pickup truck's trailer was carrying three horses, one of which died in the crash.

Epworth's annual Town & Country Days celebration was happening that weekend. Snyder said the parade finished around Noon. The crash happened at approximately 1:34 p.m. As of Monday morning, Snyder said he did not know whether the horses had been in the parade or if the event played any role in the crash.

He also said part of the investigation includes determining why the boys were on the Gator. Gators can only legally be driven on county roads when being used for farm work.

Three of the four boys had been in the Town & Country Days parade earlier, with the wrestling float.

Epworth Fire Department chief Tom Berger released a statement on the department's website. Part of it is below:

Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families affected by this tragedy.

When you join a fire department, you also join another family. This tragedy is extremely difficult for the members of the Epworth Fire Department family as Mitchell Kluesner is the son of Lt. Todd and Laura Kluesner.

When you are the child of a firefighter, you tend to spend a lot of time growing up around the firehouse. There is no doubt in our minds that Mitchell would have been one of the best firefighters to ever join the ranks of our department.

Our hearts are heavy with grief and sorrow.

We would like to thank all of the public safety community who responded and assisted in any way. This includes the Dubuque County E911 Center Personnel, the Epworth Fire Department, Farley Ambulance Service, Centralia-Peosta Ambulance, Epworth Police Department, the Dubuque County Sheriffs Office, The Iowa State Patrol, The Dubuque County Medical Examiners Office, Mercy Medical Center and the Unity-Point Finley Hospital.

We also thank the many citizens who stopped to render assistance prior to our arrival at this very difficult emergency scene.

The EFD members will be honoring our departed little firefighter at the funeral and we ask for your thoughts and prayers for all of the families, the responders and the entire community as we continue to grieve.

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