LANCASTER -- The four Leominster friends were on the cusp of adulthood, spending a last carefree summer together before college and work, when they took a late-night, high-speed drive down the winding forest thoroughfare known locally as ''rollercoaster road."
Early yesterday, all four were killed in a crash that so violently tumbled and twisted their car, police arriving at the scene could not figure out which of the four had been driving. None of the victims wore a seat belt, said police.
In Leominster, a city grieved for four young lives ended too soon: Hollie Duval, 18, wanted to be a detective; Christine Gallant, 20, planned to become a veterinarian; Todd Schofield, 20, had started training to become an electrician; and Nirmin Villahermosa, 20, had learned days ago that she would give birth in four months to a baby daughter -- she had already picked the name Iliana.
''It was that free summer before commitments, before the real world," said Hollie Duval's father, Chip Duval. ''We're still in shock. Totally numb."
In Lancaster, devastated public officials yesterday discussed potential measures to improve safety on Old Union Turnpike, which had no speed limit signs on the mile-long stretch where the accident occurred despite local renown as an uninterrupted speedway.
At about 1 a.m. yesterday, a 911 call directed Lancaster police to a 1999 Oldsmobile Aurora registered to Gallant's grandmother wrapped around a tree.
''It was definitely excessive speed" that caused the accident, said Lancaster Police Chief Kevin D. Lamb. An investigative team retrieved a device from the car that could indicate its speed during the crash, and Lamb said yesterday afternoon that authorities won't know how fast the vehicle was traveling until that data is examined. Alcohol does not appear to have been a factor, said police.
The four victims were pronounced dead at the scene, with the three women's bodies still in the car and Schofield lying 40 feet away.
Yesterday in Leominster, four families and their extended communities mourned as they described four gregarious young people spending this summer at bonfire parties and countless hang-out sessions before starting on college or jobs this fall. A makeshift wooden memorial festooned with roses and daisies was left at the accident site.
It's not clear where they were headed when they died. But Cindy Duval said she heard joy in her daughter Hollie's voice when they last spoke, less than an hour before the crash.
''She called me at midnight and said she was out riding with Nirman," she said. ''She was just having a good time."
Hollie Duval had planned to attend Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, where her family said she wanted to forge a career in criminology. But this summer was all about fun.
''She was an 18-year-old energetic teenager who enjoyed her friends and her freedom," said her father. ''Her favorite thing was to go out, to enjoy life."
''She didn't take sides. She was everybody's friend," said Albert Walent, 21, remembering Villahermosa, his girlfriend and mother of his unborn child.
Her mother, also named Nirmin Villahermosa, was inconsolable yesterday, pointing to her daughter's photo and saying: ''I'm never going to see that face again."
While Schofield's family refused to comment, a family friend, Berta Aikey, 49, recalled him as a dedicated student-athlete.
''When he was a student, he was a student, when he was a football player, he was a football player," she said. ''He was self-motivating and self-sufficient."
Three of the four victims had graduated from Leominster High School. Duval attended a private school.
In recent weeks, other similar tragedies have unfolded on Massachusetts roads: A 17-year-old died in a Billerica drag-racing incident last week, and a Woburn teen faces charges after an accident killed his 14-year-old girlfriend in June. However, there does not appear to be any upward trend in youth car accidents, according to state data covering 1998 to last year. A bill pending on Beacon Hill would require more training for young drivers and give police more power to restrict when and with whom teens drive.
Old Union Turnpike has a 40-miles-per-hour speed limit. There is no speed limit sign posted within a half mile of the crash site. Lamb, whose department has responsibility over the local speed limits and sign placement, said he thought the signs on the road were adequate. Last month, after local complaints, police temporarily put an electronic sign on Old Union that flashed the speed of passing motorists. But Lamb said his tiny police force -- two officers work each shift -- was hard pressed to thoroughly monitor the road.
''It's always been known as rollercoaster road," said Lamb. ''Kids, adults have all gone up there and gone over the speed limit. I can remember doing it when I was young. Everybody took a turn at it."
Lancaster officials said they would seek ways to make the road safer, but one selectman, Shawn Winsor, yesterday wondered whether unsafe drivers are to blame. ''The harsh accidents there usually involve young people," he said. ''The road doesn't seem to be terrible if you're traveling at the speed limit."