West Fargo school in mourning after deaths of studentsAs the overhead lights dimmed on the frozen field, the flickering glow of candles illuminated tearful eyes and expressionless faces, many of them still stunned by the deaths of three classmates here in just three days.
By: By Ryan Johnson and Erik Burgess, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
WEST FARGO, N.D. — As the overhead lights dimmed on the frozen field, the flickering glow of candles illuminated tearful eyes and expressionless faces, many of them still stunned by the deaths of three classmates here in just three days.
“I didn’t talk to anyone all day,” said Christine Schmidt, a close friend of Levi Schulz, a senior at West Fargo High School who died of injuries he suffered in a vehicle accident Friday morning. “When I got home and saw my mom, I just started crying and I haven’t stopped.”
Schmidt was one of hundreds who attended the candlelight vigil at Elmwood Park here Friday night held for the three students who died in separate instances all as the week was coming to a close.
Sophomore Tessa Miller died Wednesday. Her family was keeping her on life support in preparation for organ donation.
The loss prompted officials to issue a call for counselors from neighboring districts to come to the high school Thursday and help students and staff.
Those counselors were back Friday as news reached students of two more deaths — 18-year-old senior Schulz and 16-year-old junior Ian Alves, who both died Friday morning. Alves passed away about 8:45 a.m. after an 18-month battle with two aggressive forms of cancer.
“It’s been a really rough week,” said sophomore Taylor Breidenbach.
‘A depressing week’
“There’s not really words for a day like this,” Assistant Principal Holly Ripley told a large crowd of huddled mourners at the Friday vigil, before asking them to partake in a moment of silence.
With candle flames and bodies shivering as temperatures hovered below freezing, a somber voice pierced the cold air. Many more voices added as the group twice over sang in unison “Amazing Grace.”
When an encore of the song finished, a few disbanded but many stayed, sharing minute-long embraces, high fives and laughs in remembrance of their good friends.
To those that were close to her, Miller was someone who was always smiling and willing to put herself before others.
“She was like my first best friend,” said 10th grader Leyla Bakir, choking back tears. “I love her, and I miss her.”
When Friday began, staff and students at the 10th- through 12th-grade school were in “severe grieving mode,” said Community Relations Coordinator Heather Konschak.
“For many of the kids, these emotions are new and foreign. They haven’t had to deal with this, and certainly not in multiples like it has been for us the last two days,” she said.
Breidenbach said the school’s theater was the host site of counselors Friday, with students packing the room as they sought help for their grief. The sophomore said she grew up with Alves, making the loss particularly hard.
“Tessa and Levi, I mean, we were totally unprepared,” she said. “We knew about Ian, but you just never think that that day is going to come.”
Assistant West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan said witnesses reported Schulz, a resident of Horace, N.D., appeared to be walking across Sheyenne Street near the 23rd Avenue South intersection to his disabled car when he was struck by a southbound pickup. The car had a flat tire, he said.
The pickup’s driver, 35-year-old Travis Egerdahl of Fargo, wasn’t injured or cited, Reitan said.
The West Fargo Police Department reported shortly after 3 p.m. that Schulz had died, and that he was being kept on life support for organ donation.
“I just really, dearly miss him, and he was really a good-hearted guy,” Schmidt said of Schulz, her friend of five years.
The school notified students Friday morning of the latest two tragedies, dealing new blows to the close-knit student body that was still reeling after the death of Miller.
“I’m just really down. It’s been a depressing week, probably for everyone,” said sophomore Tyler Kropp, a close friend of Miller. “I know everyone’s trying their hardest to stay strong.”
If he could say one thing to his friend, it’d be a simple three words: “I miss you,” Kropp said, his eyes welling up.
Ripley spoke briefly at the Friday vigil, thanking staff across the district and parents for their support.
“We’ll continue to press on together as a family because that’s what families do,” she said.
Staying strong through the weekend and pushing through Monday would be crucial in helping students deal with grief, Ripley told the crowd of mourners.
“I think Monday’s going to be kind of rocky, but at the same time, it might be a good way to move forward,” senior Josh Klemen said.