2 loving teens, 1 tragic ending

Less than a week after graduation from Citrus High School, they die in a car crash.

Published May 30, 2007

INVERNESS - The families of Melissa Hess and Molly Paquin gathered last week at the Citrus High School graduation, watching as the girls strolled across the outdoor stage into a future filled with hope and expectation.

A week later, those loved ones are making plans to bid a final goodbye to two best friends.

Since they met as toddlers, Melissa and Molly were practically inseparable. They enjoyed the same foods, watched the same TV shows and wore the same style of clothes. On Sunday, they were returning from a shopping trip in Ocala when tragedy struck.

Melissa, 18, was driving south on State Road 200 near the Citrus County border at about 4:50 p.m. when her 1996 Honda suddenly jumped the median and crashed into a Ford pickup driven by Chi Nguyen, 37, of Ocala, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

The collision wedged the Honda beneath the truck. Rescuers found the teens trapped inside. They were pronounced dead at the scene.

Investigators think Melissa lost control of the Honda, which left the road and spun when she overcorrected the steering.

Nguyen, his wife Diane and two children, ages 2 and 4, were taken to Shands Hospital in Gainesville with injuries that weren't life-threatening. Authorities said the occupants of both vehicles were wearing seat belts.

News of the teens' deaths shook the Citrus High community. Outside the school Tuesday, a small memorial near the flagpole grew throughout the day as friends, teachers and staff members dropped off flowers, notes and stuffed animals.

"Everybody's devastated," said Citrus High principal Leigh Ann Bradshaw. "They weren't just wonderful kids, but wonderful people. Whenever I saw either of them, they were always smiling, always happy."

Bradshaw said Melissa and Molly were well liked by the staff and students at Citrus High. Both were involved with several campus clubs and both sang in the chorus.

In addition, both were in the school district's vocational training program and worked in the office of the food services program. The teens were planning to attend Central Florida Community College this fall.

Molly, 17, wanted a career in health care or education. Her algebra teacher, Karen Davis, thinks she would have been a natural in either field.

"She was a very caring person and loved to help others," said Davis, who often asked the teen to serve as a mentor to struggling students.

Melissa left little doubt that she wanted to pursue a teaching career. Her mother, Lori Hess, recalled that as a young girl her daughter would set up a pretend classroom in her backyard playhouse and invite younger neighborhood kids over.

"She would bring in pencils and paper and books for them to read," Lori Hess said. "She would have been a great teacher."

News of the teens' deaths stunned the girls' friends, many of whom paid visits to the families.

Carly Manganiello, a close friend of Melissa Hess', said the loss of her friend was unfathomable.

"The last thing she said to me was that she was looking forward to this summer and having some fun before she got busy with college," she said.

Lori Hess said that both families decided, in honor of the long-standing friendship, to have one funeral for both girls. The services will be at 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Inverness.

"I think it would have been what they wanted," Lori Hess said. "They were just like sisters."

Logan Neill can be reached at 352 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.