WELLINGTON, New Zealand – The 20-year-old Boston University student who was driving a minivan that crashed on a rural New Zealand road earlier this month, killing three of his classmates, has spoken out about the pain of losing his best friend.
At a memorial service attended by about 200 people Saturday evening in Auckland, the driver, Stephen Houseman, of Massapequa, New York, was supported and hugged throughout by his parents and Boston U. friends.
The service came a day after Houseman made his first court appearance in Auckland after being charged by New Zealand authorities with seven counts of careless driving causing injury or death. Each of the charges carries a maximum jail term of three months.
Houseman was one of 26 Boston University students studying this semester in New Zealand and Australia who were traveling in three minivans on May 12 to a well-known volcanic crater hike when one of the minivans rolled over.
Those killed in the crash were Austin Brashears, of Huntington Beach, California; Daniela Lekhno, of Manalapan, New Jersey, and Roch Jauberty, of Paris, France.
Houseman was injured in the crash and appeared in court with his arm in a sling.
Fairfax Media reported that during the service Saturday at Auckland University's Maclaurin Chapel, Houseman said Brashears had become his best friend after the two students met at the airport on their way to New Zealand.
They were excited about walking the Tongariro Crossing and seeing the peak they called "Mount Doom," after scenes from the Lord of the Rings movies were shot there, Houseman said at the service.
"Every memory I have associated with New Zealand, Austin is right there. Kayaking the Milford Sounds, zorbing, whitewater rafting and sand-boarding. He was my pal, my confidante."
Houseman recalled the pair sharing a love of Disney songs and Harry Potter, Fairfax Media reported.
"I thought I was the only guy who knew the words to almost every Disney classic song but Austin impressed me by knowing more."
"Austin was my best friend. He still is my best friend, and he will always be my best friend. I want you to know if I have a son, I will name him after you. And if my wife disagrees, I will get a new wife. I love you so much," he said at the service, Fairfax reported.
Houseman and four other students were injured in the crash. All have since been released from local hospitals except Meg Theriault, 21, who remains in critical condition at Waikato Hospital.
The hospital reported Sunday that Theriault was breathing on her own for the first time since the crash after doctors removed a breathing tube Friday.
Parents Todd and Deb Theriault, of Boston, said their daughter is a fighter and her progress is heartening, according to a statement released by the hospital. The couple said they have also met with Houseman's parents.
"We feel their pain and he now has a journey of recovery much like our daughter does," the Theriaults said in the statement. "We understand there needs to be a court process and we support it.
"But that could have been any one of our kids at the wheel. This was an accident — all our kids were pursuing their dream. Nobody was intentionally doing anything that would harm anyone," they said.
In a statement Friday, police inspector Kevin Taylor said charging Houseman "is not a decision taken lightly and we understand the tragedy will already have had a significant impact on this young man. However, we are faced with a situation where three people have died and others are seriously injured and we must apply the law in an objective and dispassionate way."
Police said earlier that the single-vehicle wreck appeared to occur after the minivan drifted to the side of the road. The driver tried to correct his course, and the minivan then rolled over several times.