NZ host of students in crash discouraged driving

NICK PERRY Associated Press Published:

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- The New Zealand university hosting U.S. students who were involved in a deadly weekend minivan crash said that they discourage international students from driving and will ratchet up those warnings in the future.

The cause of Saturday's crash, which killed three Boston University students traveling to a popular hiking spot, remains under investigation. But David Baker, director of Auckland University's international office, said he intends to step up warnings for international students not to drive because they may be unfamiliar with driving on the left side of the road or local conditions.

"It's plainly riskier than other forms of travel," he said. "The students, of course, are anxious to get out and see as much of the country as possible."

Baker said the university discourages students from driving during orientation seminars, encouraging them to instead consider alternatives like buses.

Boston University said 26 students were traveling in three minivans on their way to walk the Tongariro Crossing, a hike across a volcanic crater that is rated as one of New Zealand's most spectacular.

One of the minivans drifted to the side of the road around 7:30 a.m., then rolled when the driver tried to correct course near the North Island vacation town of Taupo, New Zealand police said.

New Zealand police official Kevin Taylor said it was unclear why the van drifted to the side of the road. He said some students were thrown from the vehicle, indicating they may not have been wearing seat belts. An investigation into the accident is going to take several days, he said Monday.

Killed were Austin Brashears, of Huntington Beach, Calif.; Daniela Lekhno, of Manalapan, N.J.; and Roch Jauberty, of Paris, France. Hundreds took part in a vigil at Boston University on Saturday night.

Brashears' father, Thomas, told the Orange County Register that his son "loved life, cherished adventure and nothing was more important than those he cared for."

The family said Austin had gone "Zorb riding" -- rolling down a hillside in a clear inflatable ball -- last week, and previously went bungee jumping. "I haven't met or known anybody who would squeeze more life out of anything," his father said.

All three minivans were driven by students; the driver involved in the wreck was among two students who were released from a hospital Saturday.

Three other students, all women, remained in area hospitals on Monday, said local health spokeswoman Mary Anne Gill. One of them, Meg Theriault, was at Waikato Hospital in critical condition with a head injury, and her parents flew to New Zealand to be with her.

"She is a fit and stubborn young woman and we know she is getting the best care," Todd and Deb Theriault of Boston said in a statement.

All the students except Theriault were enrolled in a BU study abroad program in Auckland, Boston University said. Theriault was enrolled in a study abroad program in Sydney, Australia. Boston University study abroad program executive director Bernd Widdig called the crash the worst tragedy to hit the program since it began in the 1980s.

Baker, the Auckland University official, said most of the students had arrived in February and were due to complete exams in a variety of academic disciplines in June.

He said the students organized the hiking trip themselves and had stayed in Taupo the night before the crash. Survivors are being offered counseling at the school this week, he said, adding that the university will try to find alternate ways to give them academic credit if they want to go home early.

"There are some very distressed kids," he said.

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Associated Press writer Bridget Murphy in Boston, Mass., and Stephen Singer in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.