Micalah Sembach had been only 30 minutes late when her family began to panic Monday.
The 15-year-old had promised, without complaint, to be home by 5 p.m. to finish her chores and work on a math project. It wasn't like her to miss curfew, so relatives called the police Monday evening and quickly formed a search party that included her father, aunt, uncle and half of their neighbors.
Part of the group scoured Wilmington's rural streets on foot, while others drove around the town's unlit back roads for hours in a desperate, nightlong search for the high school freshman and her three teenage friends. Micalah's aunt Melissa Robertson even woke up a local hotel manager in the middle of the night on the remote chance the kids had rented a room there.
As their panic intensified, they called Micalah's cellphone repeatedly, coordinated with the other teens' families, asked for help on social media and prayed against the obvious. Even if they didn't give voice to it, everyone knew something horrible must have happened.
"When she was told to be home, give or take two minutes, she was home," said Robertson, who lived with Micalah and her parents. "That's how much of a good kid she was. So we knew."
What the family didn't know, however, was that their search would come to a heartbreaking end on the outskirts of town shortly after sunrise.
The four teens — Micalah, Cheyenne Fender, 17, Matthew Bailey, 14, and Cody Carter, 15 — had all gone out together after school Monday. They had crammed into Cheyenne's Mitsubishi Eclipse, even though state law allows only one passenger younger than 20 to be in the vehicle during the driver's first year of licensing.
As the two-door hatchback traveled along Ballou Road some time later, it smashed into the guardrail west of Warner Bridge Road and flipped into the swollen Forked Creek, a normally shallow tributary that had risen significantly in recent days amid rain and melting snow. The car sank, roof first, to the bottom.
The small sports coupe would remain there throughout the night, cloaked from view until a school bus driver noticed a tire sticking out of the water.
The four friends all drowned in the car, sending the tiny Kankakee River town into mourning and striking fear in the heart of every parent with a teenage driver.
"(I was) praying, begging, pleading, willing to trade," Robertson said, her eyes filling with tears. "Fifteen years old. I'm already tired. She didn't even have a chance to get tired. ... I'm old and tired. I would have gladly gone in her place."
Just before 7:30 a.m., Robertson received a call from a parent of one of the other teens, saying someone had spotted the Mitsubishi in Forked Creek. Robertson, who had been on her way to meet with a media outlet to get a picture of Micalah on the news, switched on her hazard lights and turned the car around.
Breathless and shaking, she barely lifted her foot off the gas for the next 10 miles, she said.
At one point she turned to her husband, Aaron Johnson, and handed him her cellphone. She planned to jump in the water and search for Micalah as soon as she got there.
"I was just like, 'Please don't let it be her,'" Johnson said.
When the Will County Sheriff's Department dive team located the car, it was submerged in more than 5 feet of fast-moving water. Authorities believe the creek was higher at the time of the accident, with one nearby resident telling officers that the creek flooded into the roadway as a wintry mix of ice and snow fell Monday.
Investigators have begun a lengthy accident reconstruction effort to determine the cause. They are considering the possibility that the car hydroplaned on a patch of ice or water and crashed through the guardrail.
The accident occurred on an arrow-straight, unlit section of Ballou Road just a fraction of a mile west of Warner Bridge Road in a rural section of Wesley Township, about 8 miles outside Wilmington.
The impact of the crash tore the guardrail from the concrete bridge. The rail, which was supported by six steel posts, fell into the water, where a swift current ran past it in swirls Tuesday.
The car's windows were all closed, and only one of the teens was wearing a seat belt when divers located the vehicle, Will County Deputy Chief Ken Kaupas said. The rescuers could not see clearly in the murky water, so they relied upon touch to determine that multiple bodies were in the car, including three people in the back seat.