Helmut Schmidt and Marino Eccher, Published February 21 2012
‘It doesn’t get much worse than this’: NDSU campus mourns deaths of four students in Monday crash
When he sees her in his mind’s eye, he sees a smile that melts his heart and won her friends by the score.
“She never didn’t have a smile on her face,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I just close my eyes and I see her smile.”
Then he can say no more.
His grief is too great.
Playle, a 19-year-old from Otsego, Minn., was one of four North Dakota State University freshmen who died Monday in a horrific three-vehicle crash on snow- and ice-slicked Interstate 94 just west of Alexandria, Minn.
Playle and three other Twin Cities-area residents – Lauren Peterson, 18, Prior Lake, Danielle Renninger, 18, Excelsior, and Megan Sample, 18, Rogers – were killed when the westbound car they were riding in lost control and went through the median into the eastbound lanes and were hit broadside by an oncoming vehicle, the Minnesota State Patrol reported.
Three others were injured in the crash, including Lawrence M. Akers, 58, of Harwood, N.D., the patrol reported.
Shock of the loss of the four young women – described as vibrant, outgoing and well-liked – reverberated across the NDSU campus, where students and staff endured a bleak Tuesday.
“It doesn’t get much worse than this,” said Cam Knutson, NDSU’s student body president. “It’s been a weird day.”
Knutson and other campus leaders are planning a candlelight vigil at 10 Thursday night. There will be a moment of silence for the deceased students at Thursday’s men’s basketball game.
Students will also be asked to wear pink today and purple on Thursday, Knutson said, mirroring a tribute at one of the students’ high schools.
Knutson said students have leaned on and rallied around one another in the wake of the tragedy.
“This campus seems big with 14,000-plus students, but it seemed a lot smaller in regards to people coming together,” he said.
Prakash Mathew, vice president of student affairs, said many who knew the four students gathered Monday night for support.
“They shared stories. They shared pictures,” he said. The university has made counselors and other support services available.
Mathew said the accident and ensuing response have driven home an idea put forth on the first day of student orientation: Campus is a family.
“We want to believe that this is their second home,” said Mathew, who spoke with The Forum moments after an emotional conversation with one of the students’ parents. “I’m just feeling like I lost a member of my family.”
Playle, Renninger and Sample were suite mates in Sevrinson Hall. A fourth suite mate, a student from West Fargo, spent Tuesday with her family, Mathew said.
Peterson lived in North Weible Hall, and also had a roommate who was not involved in the accident.
The directors of both residence halls said the students were well-liked among their peers.
“They had such outgoing personalities,” said Darcie Ellerston, director of Sevrinson Hall. “People definitely wanted to get to know them” – and they, too, “wanted to get to know people.”
Many students learned of the accident Monday via social media, she said. The university informed the rest Tuesday morning.
“It’s been a really hard day for us, and it will continue to be,” Ellerston said. “It won’t be something that just after a week, everyone feels better.”
Erica Eischen, director of Weible Hall, said students are reaching out to one another.
“She (Peterson) was definitely a very loved individual on that floor,” Eischen said.
Both residence halls have sheets of paper on the deceased students’ doors for tributes, among other impromptu memorials.
Playle and Renninger were studying marketing, and Sample was studying apparel and retail merchandising design. NDSU didn’t identify Peterson’s major.
Michelle Renninger, Danielle Renninger’s mother, said her daughter loved the university.
“She loved NDSU so much,” Michelle Renninger said, her voice heavy with emotion. “She had just said yesterday that she was so happy she went to NDSU.
“She was super happy and she had so many friends,” Michelle Renninger said. “She couldn’t have been happier with her life. She was getting terrific grades, and studying and felt so happy. She felt so good about her choices.”
Michael Renninger told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his daughter decided to attend NDSU primarily because of the school’s business program and four-hour drive to home.
Tributes to the women and condolences to their families popped up on social media websites shortly after the news of the crash became public.
“NDSU is a community and that community has 4 less wonderful people but the entire bison nation has 4 beautiful guardian angels. May Danielle, Lauren, Megan, and Jordan RIP,” Tyler Riedesel wrote on the Overheard at NDSU page on Facebook.
“I am still in an unbelievable amount of shock. I can still see your big smile that lights up a room. You will be missed Lauren Petersen. My prayers go out to the families of all you girls,” Jack Elliott wrote on Peterson’s Facebook wall.
The flag at Fargo City Hall was lowered to half-staff Tuesday in remembrance of the students.
Roman Pierskalla, the principal of Rogers High School, also issued a statement on the deaths of Playle and Sample, who both graduated in the Class of 2011. He said the two “epitomized the best, not only as students, but more importantly as citizens of our community.”
The cause of the crash is still unknown, but roads were slick and accidents abundant across the region Monday as snow fell and temperatures hovered near freezing.
The State Patrol said the crash happened as Peterson was driving a 2005 Chevrolet Malibu west on I-94, then lost control and went through the median.
A 2008 Ford Expedition driven by Lawrence Akers, 58, of Harwood, was heading east and crashed broadside into Peterson’s Malibu. A 71-year-old woman from Hopkins, Minn., Joann Bieker, then rear-ended Akers with her 2007 Toyota Corolla.
The Patrol said both Akers and Bieker suffered injuries that were not considered life-threatening.
A passenger in Bieker’s car, Kari Christensen, 48, Ramsey, also suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, the State Patrol said.
The funeral for Renninger will be at noon Friday at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, Minn., with a visiting hour before the service.
“I was so proud of her,” Michelle Renninger said. “I felt so good with the girls she was with. They were responsible. Good girls. I just couldn’t have been more proud to be her mother.”
Funeral arrangements are pending for Playle, her father said.
He said a wake will be held Thursday at NorthRidge Fellowship Church in Rogers, with the funeral Friday.
Jordan Playle “Never said anything bad to anybody. Never did anything bad to anybody. She was just a really good girl,” Robert Playle said. “She was so sweet and happy.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502 and
Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583