They were achievers and adventure-seekers, kids who would happily wake before sunrise for an arduous nine-hour hike through the New Zealand wilderness - and rent vans for the trip even though they had been warned the roads could be dangerous.
Roch Jauberty, an effervescent sophomore who grew up in California, was widely beloved. “You never saw him without a smile on his face,’’ said Kevin Martin, the coordinator of the study-abroad program in Auckland, where the Boston University students were based.
Daniela Lekhno, a raven-haired New Jersey junior who was studying finance, wrote on Twitter that the study-abroad program was a “new year, new adventure,’’ though she was “already missing some old friends . . . #hategoodbyes.’’
And Austin Brashears, a handsome California junior who bungee-jumped off an Auckland bridge for his 21st birthday last month, told his mother the program “was the best time he ever had in his life.’’
He had one more outing planned before leaving New Zealand: the hike with 25 classmates at Tongariro Crossing, the volcanic site used to depict Mount Doom in the evil land of Mordor in the “Lord of the Rings’’ movies.
The group traveled from Auckland to the tourist town of Taupo on Friday, staying overnight at a backpackers’ lodge. They rose at 6 a.m. Saturday, New Zealand time, boarding white minivans, rounding a large lake, and heading down the winding, mountainous road to Tongariro.
They never got there.
At 7:30, Stephen Houseman, a junior who was driving one of the vans on the unfamiliar left side of the road, hit a patch of gravel on the left. Houseman swerved right - too far right - to correct his course, according to Martin and New Zealand police. He swerved left, then right again, trying to avoid an embankment. The van rolled. Some of the students, probably without seat belts, were thrown out before the van came to rest wheels-up on the shoulder, debris scattered across the highway.
Another student was ferrying seven others in a separate van a few feet ahead; he watched in horror through the rearview mirror and screeched to a stop as his passengers poured out to help. A neighbor took some of them into her home; emergency workers showed up 15 minutes later.
Of the eight students who were riding in the now-wrecked van, Brashears, Jauberty, and Lekhno were dead. The other five were injured. One of them, junior Margaret Theriault, was left fighting for her life.
A third minivan, farther down the road, continued on, its occupants unaware of what had happened. They made it to Tongariro and trekked across its famous crater, out of cellphone range.
When they came to the end of their hike at the other side of the volcano, Martin said, two people they had hired were waiting to take them back - and to tell them of the friends they had lost.
Faced with the prospect of driving back in the dark, they huddled instead in a hostel.
Meanwhile, the rest of the 16 students who had been in the two-van convoy were making their way back to their home base, where staffers from BU and the University of Auckland waited to counsel them.
The injured were rushed away in several directions.
Theriault, a 21-year-old junior in BU’s school of management, was airlifted from the crash site to a large hospital in Hamilton, almost 100 miles away. She remained in critical condition as of Saturday night, said Mary Anne Gill, a spokeswoman for Waikato Hospital. She said that Theriault had undergone surgery and that her parents were on their way to New Zealand.
Two other BU students were being treated yesterday for serious injuries at a hospital in Rotorua, slightly closer to the crash site. One underwent an operation on her shattered arm. Two more, including Houseman, were treated for minor injuries at a third hospital in Taupo and released late in the day.
“Some of these students lost best friends and survived,’’ said Martin. “They’re going to need help for a long time.’’
Houseman, the driver of the van - “a sensible young man’’ who had driven students on previous trips - was getting special attention from two counselors, Martin said.
“You can imagine how he’s doing,’’ Martin added. “He’s going to need a lot of support.’’
The trip was nothing out of the ordinary, Martin said. Just last week, BU staffers took a group to an area near Rotorua.
“They’ve been traveling all over the place. They’ve gone wherever they can be,’’ he said. “That’s part of the reason they were here.’’
Though Martin and his staff recommend to students during orientation that they not rent cars - “we strongly suggest they find other means to get around New Zealand, because we’re worried about things like this,’’ he said - students typically do it anyway, and “we know they’re going to.’’
Several of the injured students - Houseman, junior Alys McAlpine, senior Kathy Moldawer, and sophomore Emily Melton - were close to the three who died. McAlpine, one of those seriously injured, was Lekhno’s best friend, Martin said: “They were inseparable.’’
Madeline Baker, a BU junior, had roomed with both of them and was planning to live with Lekhno next year after finishing her own study abroad program in Senegal. She said Daniela - “Dee’’ to friends - was sassy but compassionate, willing to skimp on sleep or studying if a friend needed her.
Before winter break last year, Lekhno gave Baker a note in her elegant handwriting, urging her to embrace new experiences. Baker carried the note with her wherever she went.
“She was aware that life should be about adventure,’’ Baker said. “She made all of her decisions knowing that.’’
At a candlelight vigil for the victims outside Marsh Chapel on the university campus, nearly 200 students gathered in a circle holding candles as university officials and students spoke of the importance of community.
“When the backdrop of grief and loss and tragedy gets dark enough, then we begin to see these illumined points of light,’’ said Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel.
“Our prayers go out the students and their families,’’ said BU President Robert A. Brown in a statement. “We will do all we can to provide comfort and assistance to those who have been injured, and to the families and friends of the victims.’’
BU has been beset by tragedies all semester, including two high-profile sexual assault arrests and a fire that left an undergraduate badly injured. And on April 19, an Indian graduate student was fatally shot on an Allston street in an apparently random act of violence.
“They’ve all been hard, but this is like a ton of bricks,’’ said Stephen Burgay, the university’s vice president for marketing and communications. “Three kids.’’
BU administrators met Saturday morning to discuss how best to support their students.
All but two of the 26 students on the hiking trip were enrolled in a program based at the University of Auckland. One was not a BU student; he was enrolled at another university but had joined a BU friend for the hike.
The other non-Auckland student was Theriault, who was in a similar program in Sydney. BU will arrange for her to have counseling there if she returns, said Berndt Widdig, the school’s director of study abroad.
The Auckland program began Jan. 3 and ends June 26. Its students have been offered the option to cut short their studies and come home, though Martin said he suspected many would choose to stay because they have bonded so tightly as a group.
All the families of the deceased and injured students have been contacted by BU, and at least three families were on their way to New Zealand on Saturday. Most BU students on study abroad programs elsewhere have returned home already or are in transit, said Widdig.
At least two other BU students have died abroad in recent years, though not on official BU programs.
On Saturday morning, BU counselors were fielding calls from students seeking support. The campus chapel was empty except for one young woman sitting in a pew crying.
News of the crash did not seem to have spread widely around campus on Saturday. Many students had left already for the summer. Twitter, a hive of student discussion during the previous BU tragedies, was quiet except for a few poignant notes.
Tom Imbalzano, a student in the BU school of management who is currently in Sydney, posted on Facebook after the crash - but before the victims were identified - pleading for two friends to signal their whereabouts.
“Roch Jauberty Andrew Todtenkopf prayin for you guys please message me or update your status asap,’’ it read.
Brashears also loved coordinating excursions for his New Zealand classmates, said his mother, Julie Brashears. “Everyone called him the cruise director,’’ she said. “He loved having an eclectic group of friends.’’
An environmental engineering major and stellar student, he had big plans for his senior year: president of the water polo team and the engineering honor society, a resident assistant in his dormitory. His mother worried that he had taken on too much, but said he seemed passionate about everything he did.
“He loved Boston, even in the blizzards - it was just more of an adventure to him,’’ she said. “He told us he wore shorts and tank tops underneath his winter clothes because he was California boy at heart.’’
Brashears said she and Austin’s father, Thomas Brashears, had not seen him since he left for New Zealand in January - “We didn’t want to cramp his style’’ by visiting, she joked - but one of his older brothers made the trip a few weeks ago.
Their family is still awaiting word on how best to bring Austin’s body home, Brashears said. They might need to travel to Auckland to pack up his things in his dorm room, but part of her, she said, would rather wait before making the trip.
“I’m thinking that maybe we might want to go in six months,’’ Brashears said, “when I can see what he saw and know why he loved it there.’’