MADEIRA BEACH — In a parking lot on the gulf side of John’s Pass, some 200 people who knew Rachel Herring gathered to remember the 16-year-old girl killed in a boat crash early Sunday.
Friends and family shared memories and held one other. Most in the crowd Monday evening were teens.
“My hope, and I think her family’s hope, is that we all are better people moving forward from this point," said Tara Lynn DiLuzio, “and take this to look at each other differently, to be kinder and not be so quick to judge.”
DiLuzio, owner of the West Florida Dance Center where Herring was a student, described her as a smart, pretty young woman who was drama-free.
Herring died around 1 a.m. Sunday after she was ejected from a boat that hit a steel channel marker in the Intracoastal Waterway off Indian Shores. Herring and six other teens were heading back from a Halloween party.
There was no sign the 16-year-old driver was impaired, but he was charged with vessel homicide — a first- or second-degree felony punishable by up to life in prison. The State Attorney’s Office said Monday that no decision had been made about whether the driver will be charged as an adult. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office processed him as a juvenile following his arrest Sunday.
The Tampa Bay Times is not naming him because of his age.
The driver violated five U.S. Coast Guard safety rules, according to an arrest affidavit: responsibility, safe speed, risk of collision, operation in narrow channels and visibility of lights. He was in a no-wake zone but estimated his speed as 30 mph, the affidavit said. He did not see the channel marker until too late, then swerved but slammed into it with the right rear of his 24-foot center console boat, the affidavit said.
Herring remained in the water for an hour until she was found dead by the Sheriff’s Office, the affidavit said.
Chad Bryan, a student pastor at BridgePoint Church in Seminole, did not know Herring but offered his condolences at the Monday vigil.
“I can’t go 30 seconds into a conversation without hearing how she lit up your life,” Bryan said.
After Bryan spoke, friends and classmates took the microphone. One said she still sent texts to Herring’s phone, wishing she could answer. Herring wanted a tattoo, designed by a friend. Another girl remembered how Herring supported her through one of the toughest times of her life, even though they didn’t know each other very well.
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Brandi Bottger, 20, met Herring through their shared passion for dance. They’d known each other since Herring was 7. Just a few days ago, Bottger received a text from Herring wishing her a happy birthday. Bottger said she’ll remember that text for the rest of her life.
“Rachel was the absolute ideal person,” Bottger said. “She was the most beautiful girl and she had a heart of gold.”
At sunset, the crowd lit candles and walked together across the high bridge over John’s Pass to drop flowers in the water. Most in attendance wore green, Herring’s favorite color.
Kyla Barker, 17, had a few classes with Herring at Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole. Even those who didn’t know Herring seemed to know her in a way, Barker said.
“She was just a bubbly person," she said.
After sunset, some people lingered beneath a pavilion at John’s Pass. Candles flickered in front of Rachel’s photo on a table nearby. Some people carried fliers handed out during the vigil, featuring an image of a memorial to Herring that was attached to the channel marker.
Herring’s father attended the vigil with other relatives but declined to comment.
Standing near him was Jaden Larkin, 20, who met Rachel Herring three years ago when her father and his mother started dating. Larkin said Rachel made him laugh and they would often get ice cream together at a Candy Kitchen. Larkin always got chocolate. Herring would choose a different flavor each trip and the two would talk about their day.
“She was just always happy," he said, “nicest person in the world. Would do anything for you.”
Staff writers Jack Evans and Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.