Tim Staples was watching television with his family in the living room of their Antioch Township house when he noticed headlights in his front yard.
"Your instincts just know something's wrong," Staples said.
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He called 911, then quickly put on a hat and coat and went outside with a flashlight. The construction worker trained in first aid initially checked to make sure the scene was safe before coming upon the vehicle that crashed into a 24-inch-diameter tree on his property, killing two teenagers.
Lake County sheriff's police said Joel Wittkamp, 16, of Antioch was behind the wheel of a 2007 black Chevrolet TrailBlazer and heading west on the 27000 block of Wilmot Road when it veered off the pavement. Authorities said the sport-utility vehicle went through Staples' yard and into the tree about 7 p.m. Monday.
Deputy Coroner Orlando Portillo said the crash's force killed Wittkamp and his passenger, 17-year-old Ashley Seay of Lindenhurst. Both were pronounced dead at the scene, Portillo said. Police said Seay and Wittkamp were wearing seat belts.
Wittkamp was a student at Antioch High School, while Seay attended Lakes High School in Lake Villa. Their Facebook postings indicate Wittkamp and Seay were in a relationship at the time of their deaths.
Staples' neighbor, Phil Delany, said he had just finished dinner with his family and was settled in to do some reading when he heard what sounded like thunder. He went outside to investigate and joined Staples in the hope of helping the teens in the TrailBlazer before rescue personnel arrived.
"You could see there was nothing we could do, which breaks my heart," said Staples, whose wife operates her Rusty Gate Ranch horse training business on the couple's property.
Police said the crash force was strong enough to uproot the tree, causing it to land partially on the vehicle. Authorities said the crash remains under investigation and that weather appears to have played a role in the one-vehicle wreck.
Lakes High School Principal Stephen Plank said the building's corridors were much quieter than usual Tuesday, which he took as a sign of respect students were showing for Seay and her family. He said Seay, a junior, divided her time between Lakes and the Lake County High Schools Technology Campus in Grayslake, where she devoted herself to studying cosmetology.
"Like all students, she was a pretty happy and a pretty energetic young lady," Plank said.
Michele Hawksworth of Lake Villa remembered Seay as a social and respectful young woman who visited her home to swim or just hang out with her son, Nathan, and other teenagers.
"She had her future well planned," Hawksworth said. "She definitely was going in the right direction."
Antioch High School Principal John Whitehurst said Wittkamp, also a junior, was a defensive back on the football team. Wittkamp was described by those who knew him as a teen with an unusual sense of humor who was enjoyable to be around.
Wittkamp's coach and Antioch High social studies teacher, Brian Glashagel, said there were many heavy hearts at school Tuesday. He said Wittkamp was a great football teammate who had many friends and possessed a good nature.
"Joel Wittkamp was a dedicated, hardworking kid that us coaches have had the pleasure of watching improve not only as a student-athlete but in his academics as well," Glashagel said. "He primarily was a (junior varsity) player for us last season and would have been a contributor somewhere this upcoming season on defense and special teams. Personality-wise, Joel was the guy in class and on the field that provided laughs."
Lakes High junior Joe Sisk said he was friends with Wittkamp and remembered him for an easygoing personality and not taking things too seriously.
"You wanted to be around this kid," Sisk said. "He liked to make people laugh."
Students decorated Wittkamp's locker, Whitehurst said, and several spoke with counselors. A planned assembly Tuesday to celebrate the school's achievements was canceled.
"It seemed inappropriate," he said.
Antioch High School also was struck by tragedy in November when freshman Nicole Parfitt, 14, a member of the varsity dance team and her father, Todd, were killed in when their single-engine plane crashed in a Wisconsin field.
"It's not been an easy year for kids. This brings up a lot of those old memories," Whitehurst said.
• Daily Herald sports writer Joe Aguilar contributed to this report.