One month and a day after their lives were upended in a New Zealand van crash that killed three Boston University students, two survivors have begun the journey home.
The homecoming marks a new chapter in each of their sagas. For Stephen Houseman, the driver of the van, it means the beginning of the long process of emotionally coping. For Meg Theriault, the return is the next step toward physical recovery.
On Wednesday, Theriault, who has undergone brain surgery and come out of a coma in the month since the crash, left New Zealand on a medi-flight bound for Boston.
“The lives of all of the families of this wonderful group of young students were turned upside down, and we continue to support each other as we move forward,” her parents, Todd and Deb Theriault, of Salisbury, said in a statement.
They also said that once she has fully recovered, Meg plans to return to campus to complete her degree, then to New Zealand to personally thank the doctors who treated her.
“We know in our hearts that Meg will work to heal and return to finish her studies at Boston University,” the Theriaults said.
Just hours before Meg Theriault boarded the plane after leaving intensive care at Waikato Hospital in New Zealand, Houseman pleaded guilty to charges of careless driving and was cleared to return to the United States.
Houseman, 20, of Massapequa, N.Y., was driving eight students on a trip to walk the Tongariro Crossing, a well-known volcanic crater, when they crashed near the city of Turangi.
New Zealand police say that due to the driver’s “momentary loss of concentration,” the van drifted off the side of the road and into gravel on the left. Houseman reacted by swerving right, and then back to the left to avoid oncoming traffic.
But he overcorrected, flipping the van, police said.
The crash killed Austin Brashears, 21, of California; Daniela Lekhno, 20, of New Jersey; and Roch Jauberty, 21, of Paris, who grew up in California. Theriault, 21, sustained severe head injuries.
The four, who were not wearing seat belts, were thrown from the vehicle, police said. Houseman and the three other passengers were wearing seat belts and were not seriously injured.
Houseman told authorities after the accident that he had twice asked all the passengers to put on their seat belts, according to new details in the police report.
The tragedy during the study abroad trip blindsided the BU community, which was just a week and a half from its commencement, and prompted vigils in both Boston and New Zealand. Family members of some of the students killed, reached by phone and e-mail Wednesday, remain traumatized.
Houseman, who was also injured in the crash, was stripped of his passport and charged with four counts of careless driving causing injury and three counts of careless driving causing death. On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to all counts, which could have landed him 21 months in jail.
But Judge Brooke Gibson handed Houseman the minimum penalty: a six-month driving ban in New Zealand and $941 in court costs.
“It was a classic careless driving case, where the carelessness was slight but the outcome was massive,” Gibson said in court, according to Fairfax Media in New Zealand.
A crowd of students, parents, and US embassy officials were in court to support Houseman, and Gibson cited the wishes of the victims’ families that Houseman not got to jail.
“This accident could have occurred when any one of the students was driving,” the Brashears family said in a statement Wednesday. “It is our family’s hope that now that the court proceedings about this accident in New Zealand are over, Stephen can begin to heal and chart a course for his future living up to his full potential as a way of honoring his friends who were killed or injured.”
Thirty-one days after the crash, Houseman is free to return to the United States.
“As far as the district court proceedings go, it’s all over for Stephen,” said Marie Dyhrberg, Houseman’s lawyer. “He’s been given his travel documents back, and the family is planning to head home.”
BU is eager to welcome back Theriault as well as Houseman, who also would like to resume his studies.
“There were a lot of people home for the summer and away from the campus who are still saddened by this,” said Kenneth Elmore, the college’s dean of students. He said BU is likely to partner with students to host a vigil memorializing the victims when classes resume in the fall.
Elmore said he is encouraged to hear Theriault was able to return home.
“All of the students and families remain in our thoughts and prayer,” he said. “Hearing that she’s back in Boston was a good source of encouragement, a little bit of light.”