Andrew Gass and Mark Hutcheson's families grieve for lifelong pals killed after car hit tree in heavy fog in Armagh
Two teenagers killed in a horrific road crash as they made their way to college have been described as "caring" and "hard-working" lifelong friends.
The car they were travelling in left the Cladymilltown Road, between Markethill and Newtownhamilton in Co Armagh, yesterday morning.
Dense fog and heavy rain had made visibility extremely poor and conditions treacherous.
The 17-year-olds, Andrew Gass, from Tullyallen near Markethill, and Mark Hutcheson, from Mountnorris, were the driver and front-seat passenger in a Vauxhall Astra.
A third teenager is being treated in Craigavon Hospital for non life-threatening injuries.
The other two teenagers were students of Southern Regional College in Armagh, studying fabrication and welding at the Hamiltonsbawn Road Centre campus.
They were on their way to a skills competition when the car left the road and hit a tree.
The accident brings the number of people killed on Northern Ireland's roads this year to five.
Students and teachers were in shock yesterday as news of the deaths began to circulate.
The pair had grown up together and attended Markethill High School before moving on to college together.
Principal James Maxwell said: "The entire school community is deeply saddened by the news, and our thoughts and prayers are with both families at this sad time.
"Both boys were popular, well-mannered and respected members of the school community who demonstrated passion and commitment towards all aspects of school life. They left in June 2015 looking forward to the next step on their educational pathway.
"Andrew loved Agriculture, vocational courses and he was heavily involved in school sports’ teams, including rugby and hockey. Similarly, Mark excelled in Science, Agriculture and applied subjects such as Carpentry and Joinery.
"I have no doubt in my mind that both boys had great futures ahead of them and they will be remembered with fondness for their great generosity of spirit.
"Since the news has broken, the school has implemented its Critical Incident policy. Alongside staff, trained counsellors are on-site to support pupils and staff at this time. A special assembly to remember Andrew and Mark will take place in the near future."
The lifelong friends also worked as apprentices at SFS Plastics in Mountnorris.
Brian Simms, managing director of the manufacturing company, said the whole community has been left shocked by the tragic deaths.
Mr Simms, who has known the pair for many years, added their parents are devastated.
"They were two lovely and pleasant lads to work with and we will miss them very much," he explained. "All of the staff here will miss them - it's a heartbreaking tragedy.
"We will never replace them. They were very good friends. They went through school together from a young age. If you saw one of them, you would see the other.
"They started their apprenticeships last June and had been with me the year before over the holidays. I've known the two boys for a long time.
"It's been a tremendous shock to us all - it's unbelievable and such a tragedy.
"They are two of the hardest-working fellas I have ever worked with in my life.
"They were both good buddies. Everyone is stunned at this. Their parents are devastated."
Friends also posted tributes to the teenagers on Facebook.
One wrote: "Rip (to) two of the nicest lads I've ever met."
Another added: "Two very good boys. Always winding me up somehow before going to tech/school. Loved the craic with two very caring boys. Thinking of you forever and always Hutchy and Gass."
Mark and Andrew were also keen members of their local Young Farmers' Club (YFC).
A spokesman for the Armagh Young Farmers' Club of Ulster (YFCU) said: "It was with much sadness that the officers of the YFCU learnt of the death of their esteemed members Andrew Gass and Mark Hutcheson.
"Both young men were outstanding members of Mountnorris YFC, and they will be greatly missed by the club and the YFC family. Our thoughts and prayers are with their family, friends and with the club." Southern Regional College chief executive Brian Doran said staff and students alike were deeply shocked and saddened at the tragic deaths of "two young students who were great characters and shared a close bond" throughout school and college.
And after visiting the scene of the accident, DUP MLA William Irwin told the Belfast Telegraph: "This is such a tragedy, with the lives of two young local lads lost in an instant. It really is such a horrific loss for the families of both young men.
"Having lost a child of my own in a swimming accident some years back, I know just how painful and totally devastating this will be for the families involved. Words really cannot describe the anguish this awful ordeal brings."
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan issued a reminder to all road users to take care when driving in difficult conditions such as fog and rain.
He said: "My thoughts are with all of the families and the communities who have lost loved ones or who have loved ones suffering serious injuries. I know that the pain of such a loss is deeply felt for a long time.
"These deaths serve as a reminder of the danger we all face when we use the road - it is the most dangerous thing that most of us do every day. We take it for granted, but we cannot afford to do so."
Ulster Unionist MLA for the area, Danny Kennedy, added: "This is a terrible tragedy and I offer my sincere sympathy to the families and friends of those involved.
"I have no doubt that the local community will support the families in every way, and they will be in the thoughts and prayers of everyone at this sad and very difficult time."