Hundreds of community members gathered in Rainier for a lighted vigil on Tuesday in honor of 17-year-old Jessie Uch, who died in a fatal car wreck on Saturday.
Uch, a senior, was a cheerleader who helped with the Rainier Education Foundation’s annual auction.
Those in attendance gathered in the gymnasium at Rainier High School to support the Uch family and celebrate a life lost too soon. People were given the opportunity to write encouraging messages or memories of Uch on notecards for her family. Those who were comfortable speaking were given the opportunity to talk about how she impacted their lives.
Her father, Sopheak Uch, described his daughter as a selfless, loving and caring individual. He said she always attempted to cheer people up and put a smile on the face of anyone who was struggling.
“Jessie was enthused about living life to the fullest. She was not shy about making sure others are happy,” Sopheak Uch told the Nisqually Valley News following the vigil. “She loved to be there for those who wanted her to be there, even for those who didn’t want it, or those who didn’t know they were in need of a smile.”
Her father said Uch had straight As and even helped her classmates with school work if they were struggling with their grades. It was just the type of person she was, Sopheak said.
Uch was also an animal lover, who was always willing to lend a helping hand to an animal in need. Her father said her plentiful experiences included giving CPR to a chicken, putting crutches on baby chicks and taking goats for walks.
Sopheak also described his daughter as family-oriented. Sopheak said he worked at Western State Hospital as a psychiatric counselor for over 23 years. Due to some of the stresses of his job, Sopheak found himself leaning on his daughter for support.
“Who did I come to, to make me calm and take away the tainted feeling of dealing with psychiatric individuals? She did that,” Sopheak said. “Jessie is a family-oriented spirit. She wanted to make sure the family was all good. She was the last person to think about herself. She went above and beyond in making sure there’s a smile on the face of anyone who needs it.”
Sirie Chhen, who was Uch’s cousin, said Uch was her best friend. Chhen said they spent countless hours together as they danced, laughed, made slime and simply enjoyed life.
“We did a lot of things together,” Chhen told the Nisqually Valley News. “I love her so much. She’s so beautiful, too.”
Chhen said she received a necklace from Uch before her death. It has since become one of her most beloved possessions.
“I wear it everyday and I don’t take it off,” she said. “I love to wear things that remind me of people that I love and now I have more of a reason to wear it every day. It goes with everything I wear and it reminds me of Jessie. I want to carry a piece of her with me everywhere I go in life.”
Chhen said she was fond of Uch’s wardrobe as the two grew up. She said whenever her cousin cleaned out her closet, she’d call Chhen and tell her to come pick out the clothing items she liked.
“I’d sit there for hours looking through her clothes and I still wear them today,” Chhen said.
The memories that she and Uch made together are ones Chhen said she will cherish forever. She said the character her cousin possessed is one Chhen wants to carry throughout her life.
“Jessie was so kind, so generous. She was beautiful to everyone, she was accepting and she never left anyone out,” Chhen said. “Jessie was so welcoming to everyone she met, everyone she knew. She was never rude and she was so funny. She was so fun to be around and so bright. I’ll cherish every moment I’ve had with her.”
Mariah Frost, Uch’s cheerleading coach at Rainier High School, spoke on the type of character and personality Uch brought to the team.
“I had the honor of being this beautiful girl’s cheer coach for the last few years and getting to know her,” Frost said during the vigil. “I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to be a part of the community and get to know Jessie.”
Frost said Uch was previously nominated for the All-American high school cheer team. She ultimately made the team after a successful round of tryouts.
Uch was a great role model for the girls on the team and was “extremely well liked,” Frost said.
“They looked up to her. Not only because she was skilled, but because of the kind of person she was,” Frost said. “She was very warm and inviting, and that’s how I’ll always remember Jessie. She was so, so talented in so many ways.”
Uch planned to attend Eastern Washington University after her graduation, her coach said. She was going to try out for the university’s cheerleading team and Frost believes she would have made it.
Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders also spoke at the vigil, noting the sheriff’s office investigated the accident.
“We find ourselves mourning for families we don’t know,” Sanders said. “My heart goes out to the Uch family.”
Sanders said it’s important to lean on friends, family and the community during a time of tragedy, especially in a small, tight-knit city like Rainier.
“What I ask is that everybody in this gym takes a look around. This is your safety net. Lean on everyone who found the time to be here today,” Sanders said. “I’m so sorry for the family, and so sorry for the students and people that Jessie impacted. I’d like to reiterate that in my opinion, I don’t think Jessie is gone. I think her soul lives on through how we decide to live the rest of our lives in her name.”
Pastor Larry Green, a resident of Rainier, led the vigil with a prayer asking God to provide strength to the Uch family and the community during this difficult time.
“Each and every one of us in here loved Jessie, as she was such a bright light to everyone. Every time I saw her, she was always smiling and always happy,” Green said. “We thank you for her life, and though it was short, it was an abundant life. She was a light to all of us, God.”
Following the vigil, Sanders told the Nisqually Valley News the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is awaiting the toxicology report of the driver involved in the fatal collision, which he noted could take up to a year to receive.
Uch was the passenger in the car, which was involved in a two-vehicle crash in the 13800 block of Rainier Road Southeast on March 4. The sheriff’s office previously stated the 18-year-old driver’s vehicle was traveling north when he lost control on a curve and entered the oncoming lane. His vehicle was struck on the passenger side of a southbound vehicle. The impact killed Uch, according to the sheriff’s office.
Sanders said the driver, who has not been identified, had not been booked into jail due to significant injuries he obtained during the crash. The driver is suspected of driving under the influence and is facing vehicular homicide and vehicular assault charges, according to the sheriff’s office.
Rainier High School Principal John Beckman said the school is offering counseling and bereavement support services for students and staff.
“As the principal of Rainier Middle School and Rainier High School, I can assure everyone that the entire school community stands ready to provide the social emotional support to get us through such a difficult time,” Beckman stated in a letter to the Rainier community.
CT Publishing’s Photo Editor Jared Wenzelburger contributed to this story.