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DSU community remembers students at memorial

DICKINSON, N.D. - Tears slowly turned to smiles and, eventually, both gave way to laughter and lively chatter on Monday afternoon at a memorial honoring the one-year anniversary of the deaths of three Dickinson State University softball players.

DSU teammates
Dickinson State University softball player Charnel Zetsch, back left, lets out a laugh Monday while she and her teammates embrace following a memorial for the three DSU softball players who died last year. Dustin Monke / Forum Communications Co.

DICKINSON, N.D. - Tears slowly turned to smiles and, eventually, both gave way to laughter and lively chatter on Monday afternoon at a memorial honoring the one-year anniversary of the deaths of three Dickinson State University softball players.

Hundreds of students, faculty and community members gathered at noon near DSU's International Flag Plaza for a short ceremony to honor Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson. The three women drowned inside Gemar's Jeep a year ago Monday when they drove into a livestock pond northwest of Dickinson and were unable to escape the vehicle.

"It's hard for all of us, but I think we just think positive and think that if we're crying and sad and not joking around, the girls ­wouldn't really want that," said Nathalie Martinez, a DSU softball player who was Neufeld's roommate. "They'd want us to be smiling and joking around, just as if they were here with us. They were with us in spirit."

DSU President Richard McCallum and Student Senate President Jermaine Christie each spoke briefly before students released balloons.

The ceremony closed as DSU softball pitcher Charnel Zetsch led an impromptu and emotional prayer circle - similar to those the team formed last year during prayer services while they awaited word of their teammates' fate.

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Gemar, 22, Neufeld, 21, and Williamson, 20, were last seen the night of Nov. 1, 2009, when they left Dickinson for a midnight stargazing trip on the outskirts of the city.

About 45 minutes later, Martinez received a frantic phone call from Neufeld's cell phone. She remembers hearing the girls screaming for help.

The next day, search attempts proved futile. Heartbreak began to set in over the next 36 hours as a community hoped and prayed for the safe return of the three missing women.

Zetsch said she felt the same anticipating in the pit of her stomach on Monday morning as she felt a year ago.

"I thought the day that this came was going to be terrible," she said.

Yet, less than an hour after the prayer service, Zetsch was smiling, hugging her teammates and laughing about the times she had with Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson.

"I've definitely grown up a lot, having to deal with something like this," Zetsch said.

Phil Neufeld, Ashley's father, said his family was uncertain how they wanted to spend this day.

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Once a letter from DSU arrived saying the school was planning a memorial for his daughter, he knew his family had to make the trip from Brandon, Manitoba.

As Neufeld embraced their daughter's coaches, teammates and friends on Monday, he knew his family had made the right choice.

"The strength that those girls have, you could see it," he said. "They're all crying through the surface, but listen to them now. There's lots of reminiscing. You can tell they're having some fun with it. I'm glad to see that.

"They've been awesome, and that's why we call them another piece of our family."

Dustin Monke is a writer for the Dickinson Press

Related Topics: DICKINSONSOFTBALL
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