Boston University is in mourning after three undergraduates studying in New Zealand died in a car crash and at least five others were injured, with one airlifted to a hospital in critical condition.
The students were part of a group of 26 traveling by minivan to Tongariro Crossing, a popular hiking site in the north of the country. The students had organized the trip themselves and privately rented minivans, hoping to see where the “Lord of the Rings” movies were filmed. No BU staffers were traveling with them, said Bernd Widdig, executive director of BU’s study abroad programs.
Sixteen of the students were traveling in two vans, one behind the other; a third van was ahead and those aboard did not see the crash. According to New Zealand police, around 7:30 a.m. New Zealand time—3:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Friday—the second van apparently veered left off a paved road onto gravel, then rolled over in the other direction after the driver appeared to overcorrect. Students in the first van saw the accident and stopped.
Police continue to investigate the cause of the accident.
The Globe reported Friday night that the two vans had only 14 seats between them, although 16 students were traveling on them. Officials in New Zealand said that because some students were thrown from the vehicle, at least some were likely not wearing seat belts.
The student driving the wrecked van was among the injured, according to Widdig. “It’s horrible,” he said.
Another van, with the remaining 10 students, was traveling well ahead of the two-vehicle convoy. Its passengers did not know about the accident and continued with the hike, only finding out what happened afterward.
A candlelight vigil will be held on campus at 8 p.m. Saturday to remember the victims.
“This is a horrible tragedy,” said BU President Robert Brown in a statement. “Our prayers go out the students and their families. We will do all we can to provide comfort and assistance to those who have been injured, and to the families and friends of the victims. The university is mobilizing all of our resources to help our students and families deal with this tragedy.”
BU identified the deceased students as junior Daniela Lekhno; Roch Jauberty, a 21-year-old sophomore from California; and Austin Brashears, a 21-year-old junior, also from California.
Brashears, an environmental engineering major, had wanted to study in New Zealand because of the country’s focus on environmental conservation, said his mother, Julie Brashears. On weekends, she said, he planned excursions for his fellow students.
“Everyone called him the cruise director,” said Brashears, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., where Austin grew up. “He wanted to include everybody on the trips. He loved having an eclectic group of friends.”
Austin posted new photos on his Facebook profile several times a week, she said, documenting the excursions he checked off the list of adventures he wanted to complete while in the country. He went Zorb riding – rolling down a hill inside a clear inflatable ball—and on his birthday in April, he bungee-jumped off the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
This weekend’s trip, Julie Brashears said, was the last thing on his checklist. She spoke with him a few days before he left for the trip, and he reflected on his study abroad experience.
“He told us it was the best time he ever had in his life,” Brashears said.
Margaret Theriault, a 21-year-old junior in the school of management, was in critical condition after the accident and was airlifted to a 200-bed hospital in Hamilton. No further details on her condition were available Saturday morning.
Several other students were also being treated for less serious injuries. BU identified those students as junior Stephen Houseman, junior Alys McAlpine, freshman Emily Melton, and senior Kathy Moldawer.
Two of them, with serious but not critical injuries, were airlifted to a hospital for treatment and were in stable condition, according to the New Zealand Herald. Another two – a man and a woman, both 21, with minor injuries—were treated at a different hospital in Taupo, a vacation town in the center of the North Island, very near the crash site. Those two students have since been released.
BU has been beset by tragedies all semester, including two high-profile sexual assault arrests and a fire that left an undergraduate badly injured. Most recently, on April 19, an Indian graduate student was fatally shot on an Allston street in an apparently random act of violence.
“They’ve all been hard, but this is like a ton of bricks,” said Stephen Burgay, the university’s vice president for marketing and communications. “Three kids.”
Top BU officials met shortly after 10 Saturday morning to discuss how to support their students, both abroad and on campus.
“The meeting is with all the deans. The students came from different schools here, so we’re grappling with this tragedy and making sure we have set up everything here on campus,” said Widdig. “Certainly there will be a memorial service. Graduation is less than two weeks away. The university will certainly mark this. Right now, the discussion is: How do we do it properly?”
All but two of the 26 students on the hiking trip were enrolled in a program based at the University of Auckland. They are currently on their way back to Auckland, where they will have counseling sessions led by that university’s staff beginning Saturday night.
The program has 49 students total, all of them undergraduates and most juniors. It began Jan. 3 and ends June 26.
The students have been offered the option to cut short their studies and come home.
“We will give them counseling right away and ascertain their psychological status,” Widdig said.
Most other BU students on study abroad programs already have returned or are in transit, said Widdig. The Auckland program is unusually long because it is scheduled to match the University of Auckland’s academic calendar rather than BU’s.
All the families of the deceased and injured students have been contacted by BU, and at least one family is on its way to New Zealand.
Three BU staffers are on site in Auckland, and a fourth is flying in from a sister program in Sydney to provide extra support.
Theriault, the seriously injured student, was from the Sydney program, and BU will arrange for her to have counseling there if she returns to the city, said Widdig. The Sydney program is larger than the Auckland one, although over 100 students have already left, with 15 students remaining alongside a staff of six.
At least two other BU students have died abroad in recent years, though not while they were on official BU programs.
Mamie Hyatt, a Fulbright Scholar studying toward a doctorate in Sweden, died last year after an apparent heart attack.
Meghan Sennott, a junior, died on commencement day in 2006 in a bus accident in Peru, having just finished a BU tropical ecology program in Ecuador. Thirteen other people died in that crash and 40 were injured.
Counseling will be available to students on BU’s home campus. A candlelight vigil is scheduled on the plaza or near the campus chapel for 8 p.m. Saturday.
“Come to Marsh Plaza with a candle or a flashlight at 8 p.m. to support these 8 members of our BU community,” the website reads. Several top administrators will attend.
On Saturday morning, the chapel was empty except for one young woman sitting in a pew crying.
Another BU student, Chelsea Trim, a rising sophomore from Worcester, said she had been unable to sleep after hearing Friday night that unnamed students had been involved in a crash.
Given a list of names Saturday morning, she said she recognized one among the injured: Houseman, who is captain of BU’s Quidditch team.
“It’s such a horrible end to the year, especially with everything else going on,” Trim said, referring to the litany of bad news BU has faced all semester. She added that she was worried about how BU students would cope with the deaths, given that most are scheduled to leave the campus and its support systems after commencement.
News of the crash did not seem to have spread widely around campus by Saturday morning. Many students had left already for the summer or were busy moving out.
Twitter, which has been a hive of student discussion during the previous BU tragedies, was largely silent except for a few poignant notes of sorrow.
Thomas Imbalzano, a student in the BU school of management who is currently in Sydney, posted a Facebook update after the crash – but before the victims were identified—pleading for two friends to signal their whereabouts.
“Roch Jauberty Andrew Todtenkopf prayin for you guys please message me or update your status asap,” it read. One of students, Jauberty, was among the deceased.
A friend of Austin Brashears mourned him on Twitter: “You were a great Boy Scout.”
Daniela Lekhno’s most recent Twitter posting – from January, at the beginning of the study abroad program—showed excitement about the program.
“New Year New Adventure New Zealand,” it read. “But already missing some old friends … #hategoodbyes.”