The Staunton community is coming together to grieve and support each other after two sisters died in an eight-car accident Tuesday night on Interstate 55 near Hamel.
Hailey J. Bertels, 20, and her 17-year-old sister Madisen N. Bertels from Staunton died at the scene of the accident Tuesday night, according to Illinois State Trooper Calvin Dye Jr.
Hailey was in the backseat while Madisen was driving the 2010 Kia Forte four-door sedan, according to a release from Madison County Coroner Stephen Nonn.
Madisen was a senior at Staunton High School and her sister was a 2015 alumna, according to Superintendent Dan Cox.
“We lost a good one; she’s a great kid,” Cox said of Madisen. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of everyone involved last night.”
He noted that another 2015 alumna, a woman, was in critical condition after being injured in the eight-car accident.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families’ of the young women ... who lost their lives or are critically injured,” Cox said in a press conference Wednesday. “Our top priority is the well being of our students who are hurting and grieving.”
Cox said school officials have activated the crisis counseling unit to help students cope.
Madisen was on the softball team, part of the homecoming court and worked as an office assistant and teacher’s aid at the school, Staunton High School Principal Brett Allen said.
“I’ve spoken with her teachers and the main thing about Madisen, she was just a model student,” Allen said. “She was a bright and talented young lady. She was involved in a variety of extracurriculars.”
Cox said this isn’t the first time in recent history the school has been hit with tragedy.
“We did experience this two years ago and we’re here again today,” Cox said. “And it’s brought our community closer together, but we also wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
While school was not canceled Wednesday at Staunton High School, Cox said all after-school extracurricular activities, including a boys basketball game against the Lebanon Greyhounds and a talent show, were canceled in light of the tragedy.
“Within this community, like any small town, we all know each other, our kids are all on one campus, our staff is all one campus. It was a difficult morning with our staff and our students coming in but there was also the beauty of seeing them support each other and help each other through this time.”
Hailey was a junior at Murray State University studying communications disorders.
In a statement to the faculty and students, Murray State University President Bob Davies told them of Hailey’s death and offered the university’s condolences.
“We grieve the loss of Hailey,” he wrote. “More importantly, we send our condolences and support to her family and friends as they are dealing with this heartbreaking situation involving multiple family members. We ask that each of us remember this family, as well as others who have experienced loss, during special events with our own family and friends.”
Davies also offered information on support services to grieving students and faculty.
A GoFundMe page set up for the Bertels’ family had raised almost $11,000 in four hours on Wednesday.
A Williamson Funeral Home official said arrangements were pending.
Witnesses told police a driver of a semi-truck started “crashing into other vehicles at highway speed,” Dye said Tuesday night.
The truck crashed into a total of seven other vehicles, injuring 12 people. The driver of the truck was not seriously injured.
“This is one of the worst crashes some of us have ever seen,” Dye told the BND on Tuesday.
Authorities closed I-55 for several hours as crews investigated and cleaned up the accident scene — which included several totaled cars. Traffic was diverted at Illinois Route 140.
Hamel Community Fire Protection District officials posted to their Facebook wall around 5 a.m. Tuesday thanking all the departments and companies that responded to the accident.
“We are very grateful for each of you that contributed to that scene running as smoothly as possible,” the post stated. “This was a true testament to the importance of working together and helping each other out.”
BND reporters Kara Berg and Beth Hundsdorfer, and photographer Derik Holtmann contributed to this report.