Vigil held for Hollis crash victim

HOLLIS – Sobs and occasional mournful wails filled the damp night air along Proctor Hill Road on Sunday as nearly 100 broken-hearted friends of Nicholas Jennings converged at the site where the popular 16-year-old was killed in a Friday night rollover accident.

Candles illuminated sad, tear-stained faces of teens and a few adults at the impromptu gathering, the idea for which came up as many of the same kids stood around a bonfire earlier in the evening at the Brookline home of Charlie Corey, a close friend of Jennings who was with him in the accident.

“It was everyone’s idea; Nick always loved having bonfires, so we were doing it for him, when we thought of coming over here to honor him,” said Alex Pratt, a Hollis-Brookline High School senior and one of Jennings’ best friends.

The youth, son of David Jennings of Brookline and Diane Jennings-Lilley of Hollis, died shortly after the Ford plorer he was driving went out of control and rolled over several times on a hill on Proctor Hill Road (Route 130) on Friday night, police said.

Corey, 17, suffered minor injuries and was treated and released from St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua.

Both of Jennings’ parents came to the vigil, as did other family members, to join the teens and share their grief.

A visibly drained and emotional Diane Jennings-Lilley thanked everyone, her voice rising above the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Freebird” that played in a nearby Jeep.

“I want to thank everyone for coming tonight, and for being his friend,” she managed before her voice broke.

Pausing as she left, Jennings-Lilley said, “This is just a great tribute these kids did for Nick tonight . . . they’re all so great.”

As did Jennings-Lilley, David Jennings placed a candle in front of a white cross that had been erected just off the roadway. He also left a bouquet of flowers.

“Thank you all for being here tonight . . . we all appreciate it very much,” he said to the gathering.

Another cross had been mounted about eight feet up a utility pole on the north side of the roadway, from which a baseball cap hung. A lacrosse stick sat propped up against the pole; Jennings played the game, as well as coached youths in Hollis and Brookline and at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua.

Club operations director Kurt Norris said he didn’t know Jennings well, but knew of his contributions there. “He was a nice kid, very athletic . . . he shared that with a lot of kids here,” he said. “He came in a lot between seasons.”

A third cross stood on the ground several yards away. Flowers, along with poetry and messages encased in plastic, decorated each tribute site.

Sobs grew louder and hugs tighter when one mourner made an announcement. “It’s 9:40. Everyone raise your candles,” he said. The accident happened at 9:40 Friday.

The group was warned to keep out of the road by passing police officers, who later took up posts at each end of the site to slow traffic and allow the vigil to continue safely.

Former Brookline resident and Bishop Guertin High graduate Nicole Ruggiero, in her first year at the University of Vermont, held a tall, red candle in one hand and wiped tears with the other.

“We met one summer through another friend, and I knew right away we’d get along great. He was such a nice kid, a funny kid . . . last time I was home (from college) we hung out, we went to a party, and after he left, I called him and asked him to come pick me up and bring me to my car,” Ruggiero said.

“He came all the way back, even though my car was like three feet down the road. He just laughed.”

For Pratt, memories of playing football with Jennings, although they were two years apart, were some of the best – but the two shared a deeper friendship.

“He was the best . . . that’s all,” Pratt said, staring straight ahead as if in disbelief. “The best kid I ever met. There were no secrets between us; we always swore we’d take each others’ secrets to the grave.”

“I just didn’t think that would happen this soon.”