There was no easy way to explain the empty desk in the fourth-grade classroom.
"Something really terrible happened to Ehrin," Christina Russo, an Inverness Primary School teacher, told her puzzled students Monday morning.
Death is a natural part of life, the teacher explained. Their classmate, Ehrin Worley, who was killed Friday night in a head-on collision in Floral City, would want them to carry on despite their sadness.
But nothing could soften the ugly reality of that vacant chair.
"We cried together, and we shared together, and it was hard for them, but they did a good job," said Teretta Charles, principal of Inverness Primary, who joined the class for the somber discussion.
Friends and relatives throughout Citrus County mourned the death of Ehrin, a bubbly strawberry blonde 9-year-old. She was riding with her family when their car was struck by a pickup truck pulling out of RJ's Pizza & Subs on U.S. 41 S about 7 p.m. Friday.
Ehrin was in a helicopter flying toward Tampa General Hospital when she was pronounced dead.
Flags flew at half staff outside Inverness Primary. School psychologists were on hand to talk to troubled students.
Retired educator V. Lionel King was invited to play taps during the morning staff meeting. But he put down his bugle when he saw how teachers were reacting.
"We couldn't stand it. We couldn't take it. We just held hands and had a moment of silence for Ehrin," Charles said.
Charlene Smith, Ehrin's aunt, said the family was waiting for autopsy results before making funeral arrangements.
She said Rhonda Worley, Ehrin's mother, was devastated.
"She was just the greatest child you would ever meet," Smith said. "You could sit and have a conversation with her about anything."
Rhonda Worley, 31, was driving Friday night. She suffered injuries to her left leg and knee. Her boyfriend, Gary Sieg, 34, also was injured in the leg and knee.
Ehrin's 10-year-old brother, Bradley, has a rash across his stomach from his seatbelt and needed staples to close a wound on his head, Smith said.
According to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, Rhonda Worley was driving south on U.S. 41 when a pickup truck made a wide turn out of RJ's and crossed directly into their lane.
The two vehicles crashed head-on.
Deputies said they smelled alcohol on the breath of the pickup truck's driver, Brice Siders Sr., 63, of Inverness. He was not arrested. His blood was drawn at the crash site and will be analyzed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but the process can take as long as six weeks.
Gail Tierney, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, said deputies would send the results of their investigation, including the blood alcohol test results, to the State Attorney's Office, where prosecutors will determine whether to file criminal charges.
Siders has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached for comment Monday. He has no criminal record, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
RJ's Pizza & Subs serves no alcohol, and Siders was in the restaurant only long enough to pick up two takeout spaghetti dinners, owner Larry Pendulick said.
Siders' wife, Faye, waited in the car.
Pendulick ran out of the restaurant after hearing the crash and tried to help the little girl and her family.
"The lady was screaming, hysterical," he said. "The daughter was just lifeless."
Pendulick freed Ehrin from the car and carried her to the side of the road. The girl briefly regained consciousness.
"She said, "Mommy, I feel dizzy. I feel dizzy,' " Pendulick said.
He told Worley to keep her daughter awake until emergency medical workers arrived.
An hour later, a deputy notified him that Ehrin hadn't survived the trip to Tampa General.
"One minute, this little girl is sitting in your arms, the next you find out she died," Pendulick said. "I didn't get much sleep that night. I just tossed and turned."
Martine Frankie, 24, appeared dazed Monday when told about the wreck. She lives next to Rhonda Worley's Inverness home, and her daughters often played with Ehrin.
"Oh, my God, she was so young," said Frankie, her eyes opened wide. "She was beautiful, and she had her whole life ahead of her."
Ehrin and Frankie's daughters, 4-year-old Brookelyn and 6-year-old Brittany, would spend hours riding their scooters up and down the street and dancing to Britney Spears.
"She was always so happy," Frankie said. "I just can't believe it."