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Community mourns 2 Hibbing teens killed in crash

Hibbing High School students (from left) Emily Brownell, 17; Jacque Laliberte, 17; and Melissa Brownlee, 18, drop rose petals Sunday at the scene of a Saturday night crash in Toivola that killed two classmates, Kelsey Perkins and Lindsey Gonzalez. "They could just walk in a room and make everyone feel better," said Brownell, a senior. (Andrew Krueger /

TOIVOLA -- Hibbing High School students plan to wear black Monday in memory of Kelsey Perkins and Lindsey Gonzalez, two friends who died in a rollover crash Saturday evening just weeks shy of graduation.

But as classmates gathered this afternoon at the scene of the crash near Toivola, some mused that neon colors might be more fitting to celebrate the lives of two girls who loved to have fun.

"They were smart and beautiful girls," said Maria Anderson, 18, a senior at Hibbing High School. "They had the biggest hearts."

In groups of two, three or four, friends gathered along the side of County Highway 5 today, talking, sharing stories, crying and looking down the steep embankment at the waters of Sand Creek, where the two girls' car ended up, overturned, after leaving the roadway where it curves along the bank of the stream about 20 miles southeast of Hibbing.

Parts of the car, including a side mirror, littered the embankment until some friends collected the items and carried them away. Later, classmates left roses amid the grass and shrubs covering the slope from the road on down to the banks of the creek.

Renee Lalonde, a Hibbing senior reached by phone, had been close friends with Perkins and Gonzalez since second grade.

"They were like my sisters," said Lalonde, observing that it was hard to imagine life without them. "They were very free-spirited and lived in the moment."

Perkins and Gonzalez had been active in sports during their high school years. Kim Osterhoudt, an assistant basketball coach at Hibbing, described Gonzalez, Perkins and Lalonde as practically inseparable. "The three of them were incredibly close," she said.

Osterhoudt said the teens' tragic deaths are reverberating throughout Hibbing, population 16,200. Word of the crash spread quickly through the community via Twitter and Facebook on Saturday night.

"It's hard whenever something like this happens, but I think it gets even harder when you're getting close to graduation," said Hibbing School Superintendent Robert Belluzzo. Graduation ceremonies for Hibbing's Class of 2012 are scheduled for June 2.

Belluzzo said staff will be "hypervigilent" this week as they watch for any students who are having trouble coming to terms with the deaths. He said counselors will be available to assist wher ever needed.

"Monday is going to be a really tough day," Anderson said of returning to classes.

"We have a close class," said senior Hannah Nyland, 18.

"A strong class," Anderson added.

Lalonde said she suspects the whole school will miss her effervescent pair of friends.

"She'd do anything to make others laugh and smile," said Lalonde of Perkins, remarking simply: "She was very sweet."

As for Gonzalez, Lalonde said: "She was a great friend. She'd do anything for you."

Greg Helstrom, Hibbing's head girls basketball coach, recalled being impressed with Gonzalez.

"We selected her to be one of our captains this year because of her work ethic and leadership," he said.

But chronic back problems forced Gonzalez to cut her season short. Osterhoudt said Gonzalez fought through excruciating pain before finally deciding to leave the team and work an after-school job to help out her family.

"She was a young lady who grew up incredibly fast in the last few years," said Osterhoudt, noting how thoroughly Gonzalez poured herself into her studies.

"She never did anything halfway," said Osterhoudt, describing Gonzalez as a natural leader.

"She had a very charismatic attitude. She could fire up the girls in a heartbeat."

Lalonde predicts Perkins and Gonzalez will leave a mark on their senior class even in absentia.

"We were all pretty tight-knit to begin with, but I think this will bring us even closer together," she said.

The accident happened at about 7:20 p.m. Saturday as Perkins and Gonzalez were in a 1997 Plymouth Breeze traveling southbound on Highway 5. Just north of Arkola Road, where the highway jogs slightly to the east around a loop of Sand Creek, the girls' car failed to negotiate the curve, went down the embankment on the west side of the road and overturned into the stream, the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office said.

Both were pronounced dead at the scene; friends contacted by the News Tribune confirmed the identities of the victims. The accident remains under investigation.