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Family, friends remember 4 NDSU students killed

FARGO, N.D. -- On the Friday before a long Presidents Day weekend last year, North Dakota State University freshman Shannon Nelson helped roommate Danielle Renninger pack her bags and lug them downstairs to where their suitemates were waiting.

Renninger wasn't sure about heading home, and considered staying on campus to finish homework. Nelson reassured her going home for the weekend was a good idea.

Outside of their Sevrinson Hall dorm, suitemates Jordan Playle and Megan Sample, along with their good friend, Lauren Peterson, were packing up Sample's 2005 Chevy Malibu.

Nelson gave all four of her friends a hug, waved goodbye and headed into a long weekend of homework and shifts at her part-time job at Denny's.

It was the last time she saw her roommates alive.

Three days later, on Feb. 20, 2012, the girls were killed in a three-vehicle crash west of Alexandria, Minn., on Interstate 94. Just after 3 p.m., Peterson was driving Sample's car when she lost control on the icy road, went through the median and was struck broadside by an oncoming SUV driven by Lawrence Akers, of Harwood, N.D. The SUV was rear-ended by a Toyota Corolla driven by Kari Christensen.

In one moment, four young lives abruptly ended, and hundreds of others would be changed forever.

Panic, then shock

The four freshmen were from far-flung suburbs of the Twin Cities: Sample, 18, of Rogers; Playle, 19, of Elk River; Peterson, 18, of Prior Lake; and Renninger, 18, of Excelsior. They planned to meet the afternoon of Feb. 20 in Albertville for the trip back to Fargo, leaving earlier than they initially planned after hearing there was winter weather incoming.

Shortly after 3 p.m., when friends and family could not reach the women by phone or text, they began to call each other. The four mothers called one another, each hoping there would be a simple explanation, but panic was rising and hope was sinking.

"We just kept clinging on to any bit of hope," Kerry Playle said. "Then the state trooper came. That was the beginning of the nightmare. It's something you always pray will never happen to your kid."

Back in Fargo, Nelson had just gotten off work and was excited to return to her dorm and see her suitemates. Instead, she got a call from a mutual friend telling her about the accident. Nelson went online, where social media reports confirmed it.

"I didn't believe it. I thought no way," she said last week. "Even some days now I don't believe it. I want to pick up my phone and text them."

Effects of a moment

As the one-year anniversary nears, Kari Christensen, 49, said February has been difficult. She was returning to her Anoka, Minn., home from Fargo with her mother, Joann Bieker, now 72.

As Christensen passed a semi, she was mindful to try to keep a safe distance from the SUV in front of her. But then she suddenly saw brake lights. There was no time to cry out. All she could do was stomp hard on the Toyota Corolla's brakes. Her car slammed into the back of the SUV, which had struck the vehicle that held the four NDSU freshmen.

Christensen could see the mangled Malibu and the SUV driver still in his vehicle. She called 911, telling the operator it "didn't look good."

Christensen, her mother and the SUV driver, Lawrence Akers, learned at the hospital that the four NDSU students had died.

Multiple attempts to reach Akers for comment were unsuccessful.

Christensen suffered minor injuries. Her mother's lung collapsed, leading to a weeklong stay in the hospital and months of rehabilitation.

Although Christensen said she and her mother have recovered physically, an emotional recovery is still dawning.

"I've been thinking of Feb. 20 a lot lately," Christensen said last week, her voice cracking.

"I guess what strikes me the most, is that in a split second everything happened," she said. "I think that is why I struggle driving. I don't ever feel like I'm far enough away from the other cars."

Still, Christensen said she and her mother were lucky. It's the families of the girls she can't help but think of often, hoping they can find a way to heal.

Picking up the pieces

Nelson and Renninger shared one of the two rooms in Suite 406 at Sevrinson Hall. The pair first met on move-in day that fall, but immediately began a tight friendship, Nelson said.

"When you live with people, you grow so much closer to them, you have that connection," Nelson said.

The petite blondes were similar in looks, but West Fargo native Nelson was much quieter than the outgoing Renninger. Nelson said their friendship, along with the openness of their fellow suitemates, helped her blossom.

After the accident, Nelson admits she retreated into herself for a short time. After a brief stay with family, she decided to finish the school year and remain in the room she once shared with the three women.

Nelson said she most often stayed nights in friends' dorms, but moving away from the last place she knew of her friends was not an option.

"All my suitemates, my roommate, they're all gone, so you think, 'What am I still doing here?' " Nelson said. "Then you think how they would have wanted you to go on."

The mothers and families of the four women are still trying to make sense of the tragedy, searching for peace and reasoning, something many said a strong sense of spirituality has helped them with.

Julie Sample and Janeen Peterson said they gained a new understanding of their daughters after hearing from the women's friends. Many shared stories of kindness from Megan and Lauren that had lasting effects. The two young women were known to reach out to those who seemed lonely or in need of a friend.

Danielle's father, Michael Renninger, said he often returns to a conversation he and his daughter had about where to attend college. It came down to NDSU and a university in Iowa. He favored NDSU because it was closer to home. He can't help but wonder if a different decision could have saved his daughter's life.

A State Patrol report following the accident attributed the cause of the accident to driving too fast for the slick road conditions. The report said Peterson was traveling about 78 mph. The speed limit on I-94 is 70 mph.

"It is hard to hear that. It's very weird to me; (Lauren) was such a good kid. She never got in trouble in that sense, with her car or other ways kids got in trouble," Janeen Peterson said. "I don't want to make excuses for her. Actually, she's probably not happy about it herself. I know she loved her friends; she would never have put them in harm's way, ever. Not intentionally."

The last weekend

The four women were all described as happy, kind and fun. Sophie Porter, an NDSU student and a good friend, said "everyone just fell in love with them right away."

They were all social, so it was unusual for the four to spend the entire weekend at home with their families. But that weekend, they did.

Danielle Renninger spent hours on her marketing homework, but made time throughout the weekend for her parents, Michelle and Michael, and her then-13-year-old brother, Logan.

Megan Sample's mother, Julie, said her daughter, a highly regarded employee of Ulta, a makeup and fragrance store, talked her into a weekend shopping trip. Megan, an only child, spent time with Julie and her father, Dennis Sample. It included dinner at Leann Chin, her favorite restaurant. It was her first trip home since starting classes at NDSU in January.

Lauren Peterson's mother, Janeen Peterson, said the two spent "every minute" of the weekend together. Janeen said her daughter talked of trying new things and even ventured a taste of sushi and a wheatgrass shot, out of the ordinary for a girl whose diet was mainly chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, her mother said.

The gregarious Playle - who her friends say always found the good in others - spent time with her parents and younger brother, Dylan.

"That whole weekend she never, ever left except with us," said her mother, Kerry Playle. The family had a movie night, went out for dinner and had brunch on Sunday. Kerry Playle recalled how the happy weekend caused her to blurt out Sunday, "This is my favorite day, ever."

On Monday, in a last-minute decision, Kerry, her husband, Rob, and Dylan all took the drive to drop off Jordan in Albertville.

Michelle and Danielle Renninger were the last to arrive in Albertville. In their last conversation, Danielle, who was known for her huge laugh, gushed about her suitemates Megan, Jordan and Shannon, as well as Lauren, who spent much time there.

"It's like she didn't want me to second-guess anything, all the decisions that she made were the right ones," Michelle Renninger said. "I just got the huge gift of an hour of her telling me how perfect her life was."

Calls for change

A few months after the accident, Joe Holenko, one of the girls' friends who had organized a memorial T-shirt drive shortly after the accident, began a petition calling on the Minnesota Department of Transportation to install median cable guardrails on I-94 near Alexandria. At an estimated cost of $150,000 per mile, the guardrails have been proven to help stop vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic.

In a short time, the petition garnered more than 2,500 signatures, including those of the parents and families of the four women.

In MnDOT District 4, Traffic Engineer Tom Swenson was already a strong supporter of median cable guards. His team had begun the design phases of a project to install the guardrails near Alexandria, Moorhead and Fergus Falls when the petition began. Swenson concedes the accident reinforced the urgency for the project.

Bids were accepted and cable median guardrails from mile marker 96 to 106 near Alexandria are planned for installation this spring. Guardrails from the Red River to mile marker 7 near Moorhead will also be installed. A project for about 14 miles of guardrails near Fergus Falls will be bid sometime this year.

While the women's families hope other lives can be saved by the guardrails, it is a small consolation.

"The timing of it really bothers me, knowing it could have saved all four of them," Michael Renninger said. "That strip of road, they've often talked of how deadly it is."

NDSU will remember

As the anniversary approaches on Wednesday, fellow NDSU students, the women's families and friends are preparing for another "first" milestone. Michael Renninger said the year has been full of first: holidays, birthdays and other occasions passing as the first without his daughter.

This spring, the NDSU student government plans to begin what will become a routine event by planting four trees on campus. Plaques of some sort will hold the names of each woman.

Luke Brodeur, president of the student government, said the hope is it will be an annual event to memorialize any staff or student lost during the course of the past year.

He said the women's deaths resonated with students, whether they knew the women or not.

"It could have been any of us," Brodeur said "It's something we can all relate to, and it just happened to happen to those girls. We all recognize we are fortunate enough to make it home safely."

A somber, reflective mood fell over the campus after the accident. While the campus has had to say goodbye to other well-loved staff or students, seasoned NDSU officials said the effects on campus were devastating.

"They were part of our Bison family," said Prakash Mathew, NDSU vice president of student affairs. "Even though we depart with them, they will continue to be our family and they will always be a part of our family. They will never be forgotten."

Mathew said the trees will likely be planted near Sevrinson Hall, where Playle, Renninger and Sample lived. Peterson's dorm was nearby.

Prakash said talk of adding a bench to the area through an NDSU Development Foundation endowment has circulated, but plans aren't finalized.

"It could also be placed very close to where the trees will be planted, a place to sit and relax and share each other's stories," Mathew said. "(Students) are doing everything they can so these women are not forgotten."

New bonds form

Before the accident, none of the women's families were well-acquainted, but new bonds have developed.

Kerry Playle, Janeen Peterson and Julie Sample have gathered to share stories of their daughters. On first meeting, Playle said the women were surprised at how much each of them looked like their daughter.

"This has helped us form a friendship that, of course, we would have wanted to be under different circumstances," Janeen Peterson said. "We're on the same paths of this journey."

Michelle Renninger stays in contact with Nelson and other friends of her daughter's such as Porter and Tanya Stillwell. Nelson has visited the Renningers and plans to return next weekend after the anniversary passes.

This year, Nelson is a sophomore at NDSU, where she is still surrounded by memories of her former roommates. She said she thinks of them often as she passes by Sevrinson or returns to classrooms she and Danielle once shared.

"There are little reminders of them every single day of the year," she said.

Once terribly shy, Nelson now challenges herself to open up, to live more extroverted, the way her four friends did.

"I just hope to be more positive about everything like they always were. When I was living with them, that's who they taught me to be."

Feb. 20, 2012, a deadly day for crashes in region

The Feb. 20, 2012, crash near Alexandria, Minn., that claimed the lives of four NDSU students was not the only fatal accident attributed to slick road conditions that day.

The Minnesota State Patrol reported 200 accidents throughout the day. Regionally, three other young lives were claimed by traffic accidents:

. Megan Carlson, 13, Alexandria, was killed about 6:15 p.m. on Douglas County Road 82 when her mother's car collided with an oncoming sport utility vehicle. Her mother and the other driver were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

. Steffanie Dahlseng, 26, Starbuck, Minn., was killed about 3:30 p.m. near Glenwood, Minn., when her car spun out on state Highway 28 and collided with an oncoming semi truck. The truck driver was not injured.

. In North Dakota, 16-year-old Ashley Meyer, Oakes, N.D., was killed and five others injured when Meyer lost control of her car and spun into the lane of an on-coming minivan near Valley City.