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Boston University mourns death of 3 students in New Zealand van crash

NBC's Michelle Franzen reports.

Boston University is mourning the loss of three students studying abroad who died in a minivan crash in New Zealand.

Austin Breashears, Roch Jauberty and Daniela Lekhno were traveling in a minivan near the North Island vacation town of Taupo when the vehicle drifted to the side of the road and then rolled when the driver tried to correct course, New Zealand police said.


Five other students were injured in the accident early Saturday, including one, Margaret Theriault, who was airlifted from the crash site to a hospital in Taupo. In a statement Sunday afternoon, local health official Mary Anne Gill said the 21-year-old woman had surgery Saturday and was in intensive care. 

New Zealand police said Sunday two other women, one 20 and the other 21, were in stable condition. The other two injured — a 20-year-old man and 20-year-old woman — were released Saturday.

More than 200 people gathered Saturday night at Boston University’s Charles River campus for a candlelight vigil for the students.

Bizuayehu Tesfaye / AP

Boston University students including Tori Pinheiro, third right, of New Bedford, Mass., the girlfriend of victim Austin Brashears, hold a candlelight vigil on Marsh Plaza at Boston University on Saturday.

"We know these students were alive with hopes, dreams and potential and capacity, all dashed," BU president Robert Brown told the crowd.

Fellow student Tori Pinheiro cried as she recalled how friendly Brashears was and how much she loved him.

She said she had found an old voicemail he had left her. "I listened to it four times, just to hear your voice," she told the crowd as she tried to fight back tears.

Brashears was from Huntington Beach, Calif., and was president of the BU men’s water polo club last semester, the university said. According to the New Zealand Herald, he celebrated his 21st birthday a few weeks ago by bungee jumping from the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Boston University

Austin Brashears, Daniela Lekhno, Roch Jauberty

Jauberty, 21, had lived in Los Angeles and Paris. He had a double major, international relations and economics, and a minor in business administration and management, the school said. Jauberty interned at the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston.

Lekhno, of Manalapan, N.J., was studying business administration and management, with a minor in finance. She was a former member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority.

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New Zealand police spokeswoman Kim Perks said Sunday the cause of the crash isn’t known and the investigation "will take some time."

The van was one of three carrying 26 BU students to Tongariro Crossing, a popular hiking site in the north of the country, according to the university. No BU staff was involved with the trip, which was organized by the students. The lead van proceeded to its destination, its passengers unaware of the disaster behind them, the school said. The second van stopped at the scene of the accident.

Boston University's website quoted student Evan White, who was in one of the other vans, as saying that he and others saw the crash in the rearview mirror and backed up to the site.

"We saw people lying in the road and saw wounded people and just felt kind of helpless," he said. "Our first impulse was to do whatever we could, but everyone had a sense of helplessness. I helped people away from the van. Others ran to a house to get help."

Brashears' mother, Julie, told The Boston Globe that he frequently posted photos on Facebook documenting his adventures in New Zealand, including bungee-jumping off the Auckland Harbor Bridge on his birthday. She said he planned weekend outings for the study abroad group.

"Everyone called him the cruise director," she said. "He wanted to include everybody on the trips. He loved having an eclectic group of friends."

Student body president Howard Male, a friend of Brashears, said that before leaving the students said they hoped to view scenery captured on film in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

"They were all so excited to be able to go explore what many guidebooks ... have called some of the most beautiful places on the planet," Male said.

The tragedy cast a pall over the campus as some students anticipated approaching graduation and others packed up at the end of the school year.

Study abroad program executive director Bernd Widdig called the students' deaths an "unprecedented tragedy," the worst to hit the program since it began in the 1980s. The New Zealand part of the program began in 2003 and involves courses at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.

All the students except Theriault were enrolled in a BU study abroad program in Auckland, the BU website said. Theriault was enrolled in a study abroad program in Sydney, Australia.

The deaths were the latest in a series of tragedies to befall the campus this semester. According to The Boston Globe:

In January, sophomore Joshua Goldenberg suffered serious head trauma after jumping from a second-floor window to escape a blaze in an Allston apartment building.

Two BU hockey players were arrested on sexual assault charges.

And in April, graduate student Kanagala Seshadri Rao, 24, was found dead, with gunshot wounds to his head and leg, on a residential Allston street.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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