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Tom Stromme  /  AP
Members of the Dickinson State Softball team sit around a farm pond where three North Dakota college softball players were found dead.
updated 11/5/2009 8:33:39 AM ET 2009-11-05T13:33:39

Teammates and family members threw roses and softballs Wednesday into the farm pond where three North Dakota college softball players were found dead inside their sunken sport utility vehicle.

But there were few answers to their most troublesome questions: How did the women find themselves trapped in the water? How long did they suffer after frantically calling friends for help?

"I can't believe that my baby is gone. I miss her terribly. I'm just wondering ... What went through her mind while she was still alive in her last moment?" said Claire Gemar, of San Diego, whose 22-year-old daughter, Kyrstin, was among the three Dickinson State University students pulled from the small pond after signals from the phone calls helped lead authorities to the farm.

No foul play is suspected in the deaths Gemar; Afton Williamson, 20, of Lake Elsinore, Calif.; and Ashley Neufeld, 21, of Brandon, Manitoba. The bodies of the women and Neufeld's dog were found inside the SUV Tuesday.

Stargazing trip?
The women were believed to be on a stargazing trip Sunday night and authorities said they likely drove straight into the water in the dark. The pond is surrounded by high grass and shrubs off a narrow gravel road in a pasture north of Dickinson.

"In our minds, all of us have been reliving what we think they probably went through," said Gemar's father, Lenny.

Senior softball player Jody Lantz of St. Walburg, Saskatchewan, said she and fellow students came to the pond Wednesday "to understand it a little more, wrap our heads around it."

"It's going to be weird going onto the field and knowing that they're never going to be there," Lantz said.

Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy said the women's SUV was found resting on its wheels Tuesday in about 10 feet of water with the doors and windows closed.

"When you're not familiar with an area like that it would have been very easy to drive into" the pond, Tuhy said. The sheriff said the students were on private property. He stopped short of saying they were trespassing.

Calls for help
The students were believed to be in the 1997 Jeep Cherokee when two of their friends received telephone calls late Sunday before the lines quickly went dead. Police described the first as a "very scratchy" call for help in which one of the students said they were near water.

Tuhy said the calls, which authorities were able to track to cell phone towers, were critical in leading searchers to the vehicle. He said it wasn't clear if emergency crews might have been able to reach the women had they called 911 instead of their friends.

Police Lt. Rod Banyai said authorities do not expect autopsy results for a week or two. The autopsies will help determine the exact cause of death and whether the women were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Authorities have said there is no indication they were. The North Dakota Highway Patrol also will examine the Jeep to determine if the vehicle malfunctioned, Banyai said.

Dickinson State University President Richard McCallum said classes were canceled Wednesday and a memorial service was scheduled on the 2,700-student campus Thursday. The Dickinson State staff distributed ribbons in school colors — dark blue and silver — in memory of the three students.

The university listed Gemar as a senior business major who played third base on the softball team. Neufeld was a senior outfielder working on a psychology degree, and Williamson, a junior, was a pitcher majoring in psychology with a minor in coaching.

"I have so many unanswered questions and thoughts," softball coach Kristen Fleury said.

Last words to daughter
Claire Gemar said Wednesday that she talked to her daughter Sunday afternoon and she could hear her two friends in the background. When she told her daughter goodbye, she remembered, "I said, 'Be safe.' She said, 'I will.'"

The Gemars said they hoped the women's deaths would remind people the importance of knowing their surroundings and letting others know where they are. In the meantime, Lenny Gemar said he knows where he daughter is now.

"We threw out last pitches to each of the girls," he said of the gathering at the pond. "That heavenly softball team someplace where we hope that they all are. We know they hit them out of the park."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Parents remember

  1. Closed captioning of: Parents remember

    >> of people angry that story.

    >>> but we begin this half hour with the tragic deaths of those three softball players in north dakota . we'll talk to their parents in a moment, but first, nbc's john yang has the latest on the story.

    >> reporter: a mother's overwhelming grief at the remote farm pond in rural north dakota where her daughter died. clair gemar and the other grieving parents visited the site where the bodies of their daughters, kyrstin gemar, ashley neufeld and afton williamson were found in their 1997 jeep cherokee , submerged in ten feet of water, the doors and windows closed.

    >> i can't believe she's gone. it's like half of your life just disappeared and will never be back.

    >> reporter: tire tracks led straight to the water's edge. also inside, the body of neufeld 's dog easton. gemar, 22, and williamson, 20, were from california. 21-year-old neufeld was from manitoba in canada. they had been missing since sunday night after making two frantic cell phone calls for help. autopsy reports won't be available for several days, but authorities say it appears to have been an accident. after a day of mourning, the 2,700 students at dickinson state university are trying for a sense of normalcy that may be especially difficult for the school's championship softball team where the three dead women were standouts. kirsten fleury is their head coach.

    >> i'm just trying to keep it together for these girls and everybody.

    >> reporter: it means taking the field without teammates and beloved friends.

    >> how is this going to color your college years, do you think?

    >> it's scary. we don't live the life that we're invincible anymore.

    >> we've just got to be strong.

    >> reporter: natalie martinez wasn't just a teammate, she was neufeld 's roommate and friend.

    >> she was one of the hardest things to go through the rest of my college years knowing that they're not going to be here.

    >> reporter: a team that forged a bond on the playing field , now united in grief. for "today," john yang , nbc news, dickinson , north dakota .

    >> with us exclusively now are the parents of those three young women , kyrstin's parents, lenny and clair gemar, afton 's parents, fred and liz hutton , and ashley 's parents, phil and bev neufeld . and as i say good morning, there is no other way to begin this than to say my sincere condolences. i am so sorry for your loss.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

    >> have any of you heard anything from authorities that might make sense of this, might shed some light on how this tragic accident occurred?

    >> other than, you know, this is one of the things that the students here at dickinson , they just started so great out here and the sky's so good, this is what the kids do, they just go looking at the stars. i mean, it's a small town . there's not a whole lot to do here.

    >> you all went out -- i believe most of you went out to the scene of this tragedy in the last day or so, and as you stood there and you looked at the surroundings, could you in any way logically piece together how this may have occurred, how their car ended up in that water?

    >> no.

    >> no.

    >> i can see how they couldn't see it. they were just headed for the opening in the fence. it was apparently a clear moon full night, and you can see the line they were taking was directly at their exit, and something got in their way.

    >> mrs. and mr. gemar --

    >> they just snuck up --

    >> i'm sorry. go ahead.

    >> i just think the stock dam snuck up onto them quicker than what they were expecting and they just at that time realized that they were in trouble.

    >> mr. and mrs. gemar, i'd like to -- i'd like to give all of the families a chance to tell us a little bit more about your daughters. kyrstin, i know, was a senior, a business major, played third base. what else should we know about her?

    >> she was -- we've been listening to interviews of folks back in san diego that have grown up with her and played softball and gone to school with her and also here, we've gotten to spend a lot of time with her roommates and teammates this week. everybody loved her universally. she was considered a great person, you know, a friend a friend would want to have, you know. i know we're going to miss her, but everybody else is, too, and we're happy for all the support we've gotten from them. we spent yesterday evening in her dorm room with roommates and team members, and the stories that they told -- she was an even better kid than we thought she was.

    >> mr. and mrs. hutton , i'd like to learn a little bit more about afton . i know she was a pitcher, she was a fierce competitor and she was an outstanding student as well. tell me a little bit more about your daughter.

    >> well, afton graduated from high school with a 4.3 gpa. she was a member of national honor society , california scholastic federation, graduated in the top 1% of her class. she was a great kid, very compassionate, very loyal to her friends and her family, very caring and loving individual and loved it here in dickinson . thrilled to be here.

    >> mr. and mrs. neufeld , ashley was on a softball scholarship out there. she was studying psychology, i believe. tell me more about your daughter.

    >> she, as opposed to afton , she definitely didn't have a 4.3 grade point average, but she loved the school. she lived for her friends. she's a very caring, very unselfish, happy individual. hug them and love them, whether they're 2 or 82 is my biggest point.

    >> i'm so proud that the three of these young ladies have touched the amount of people that they have in this community and their communities back home. it's just overwhelming the people that come up, and everybody says the same thing about your daughter, their major characteristics, the big smiles. and everybody that you talk to, whether it's here, whether it's back home, people that didn't even know your daughter are telling you exactly the same thing.

    >> you know, there are so many important questions yet to be answered here, and it's obviously in the early stages of an investigation, but is there some kind of cautionary tale here? is there a word of caution for other students and other parents that you would like to share, any of you?

    >> i don't think there's any caution needed. i mean, what happened was purely and simply an accident. the one thing i would like to say is that there was a fella in the air force that was an expert in the cell phone technology that pinged in on a two-mile radius. without that guy's help, i don't think we would have ever found our kids, so i want to thank him and the air force and the governor and the school of dickinson , the students and the faculty, the cowboys that were out on their horseback and four-wheelers, the atv guys, students who walked the field. it's just, without this community, we would have never found our children. so, as a parent, if you're looking for a safe environment and a good education for your children, this is a great place to be. these folks are just unbelievable.

    >> lenny and clair gemar --

    >> i --

    >> go ahead, please.

    >> i'd like to add that this is for kids that leave home to go to college, that if you're out there to go to school and learn, please do most of that and learn from this tragic, this tragedy that happened and that i hope that something will be learned from this.

    >> lenny and clair gemar, fred and liz hutton , phil and bev neufeld , again, our sincere condolences to you and your family members.

    >> thank you.

    >> thank you.

    >> and we appreciate you spending time with us on what just has to be an excruciating day.

    >> thank you very much.

    >> thank you.

    >> so heartbreaking.

    >> impossible to understand.

    >> one of the dads said, just hug your kids, you

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