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Tearful goodbyes at N.D. pond where 3 died

Teammates and family members throw roses and softballs into the farm pond where three college softball players were found dead inside their sunken sport utility vehicle.
Members of the Dickinson State Softball team sit around a farm pond where three North Dakota college softball players were found dead.Tom Stromme / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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."