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Tears, memories flow at vigil for missing GP High students

Darren Merker bared his soul at a tearful vigil for his son Ryan, Ryan's friend and classmate Max Belnap, and Max's father John Belnap — all three feared dead in a plane crash off the Oregon Coast.

More than 200 students, friends and relatives gathered at Mel Ingram Field Tuesday night, holding candles, sharing stories and hugs, and grieving in disbelief.

Darren told the crowd his worst fears had come true, and shared his last conversation with his son Monday night. Ryan Merker and Max Belnap, both 17, were seniors-to-be at Grants Pass High School, where they excelled in and out of the classroom.

"When he called us last night, he said, 'Mom, Dad, I have a chance to go fly for the first time, can I go?' We said, 'You go for it.' "

"I can't keep him in a glass bubble. My last words to Ryan were, 'I love you and have fun.' "

The stricken father then added: "I want everyone to know, life is short. Give your mother and father a hug when you leave the house. You never know if it's the last time you're going to see them."

Kerry Alderson, associate pastor at Edgewater Christian Fellowship, told those assembled, "I don't want to try to explain why stuff like this happens. We live in an imperfect, broken world. Unfortunately things we can't wrap our head around happen."

He quoted from Romans 12:15: "When they rejoice, rejoice with them. When they weep, weep with them."

GPHS student Garrett Bauer told everyone he had gone up to Beacon Hill, the place where hillside tributes, visible from much of Grants Pass, often go up in huge white letters made from bedsheets.

Everyone turned to the east and saw the letters MRJ peeking up over the top of the stadium, marking the first-name initial for each victim.

He reminded everyone how fleeting life can be.

"One text, one FaceTime can be your last."

Student Lindsey Bonney tearfully told of doing just that, talking to Merker and Belnap via a smartphone video chat while they were on the plane.

"They couldn't stop smiling. I'm glad that gets to be my last memory of them," Bonney said. "We didn't think anything like this could ever happen to us. I hope wherever they are they feel the love that's here."

Tyler Wright, bishop for the Latter-day Saints ward attended by the Belnaps, spent Thursday through Saturday with Max and Ryan on a camping trip to Bend, Smith Rock and Christmas Valley.

"They are good people. We had a good time," Wright said, his voice breaking. "Sometimes things happen to the best of people."

Wright said he and Max brought a church service to home-bound people Sunday.

"That's the kind of person he was."

Grants Pass High School head track coach Jenner Yriarte remembered Ryan Merker's headband and swagger, and called Max Belnap graceful, fearless, tough as nails, and the best-dressed guy in school.

"They were very passionate, lovable young men," Yriarte said.

School district Superintendent Kirk Kolb led the crowd in "Amazing Grace" before Alderson closed in prayer.

Students Mark Hubbard, GPHS student body president; Alyssa Kennedy, senior class president, and Hunter Kennedy, her brother, organized Tuesday's vigil.

Grants Pass High students gather at Mel Ingram Field Tuesday night for an emotional vigil for fellow students Ryan Merker and Max Belnap, who went down in a plane Monday night near Brookings. JEFF DUEWEL / Daily Courier