PERU — State Police are investigating the cause of the horrific accident that killed four students Tuesday evening.
Authorities believe Brandon Rennert, 17, of Peru was driving the car that struck and killed two foreign students — Dat T. Ong, 17, of Vietnam and Chu Xiong, 18, of China — who were walking along Peasleeville Road just before 5 p.m.
The car then hit an earthen embankment several hundred feet away and exploded in flames. Rennert and his girlfriend, Samantha Donah, 17, of Plattsburgh, who was a passenger in the car, also died.
Rennert, whose surname had been Sorrell before he changed it after a divorce in his family, was a senior at Peru Central School. Donah was a junior at Beekmantown Central, and Ong and Xiong were Seton Catholic Central School students.
Because of severity of the fire, positive identification for Rennert and Donah was pending dental-records study and DNA testing, State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation Lt. Brent Davison said Wednesday.
What remained at the location of the accident were some charred pieces from the 1997 white Mercury Sable that Rennert was driving, skid marks in the road — and flowers and candles left Wednesday by mourners.
WALKING TO STORE
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Davison said Rennert and Donah had been traveling west on Peasleeville Road on their way to his parents’ house to drop something off.
Ong and Xiong were walking in the same direction, on their way to a store down the road from their host family’s home on Peasleeville Road. State Police didn’t know if they were walking on the shoulder or on the road itself.
It was common for the two to walk to the store together, police said.
That section of road, east of Peasleeville Cemetery and bordered on one side by forest and the other by sparsely spaced homes, is not well-lit, Davison said. He believed Ong and Xiong were wearing dark clothing.
State Police were unsure how fast Rennert was driving. Davison did say that the debris field and tire marks “were substantial” and that he could confirm they weren’t driving as slow as 30 miles per hour. The speed limit on Peasleeville Road is 55.
“That’s why we have our collision-reconstruction guys. They can come up with a pretty close estimate when the final investigation is done.”
When police arrived, the car was on its side over the embankment.
The investigation was ongoing, and Davison said they would release details of what happened as they became confirmed.
“This is one of the worst accidents I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s obviously a terrible tragedy. Four people at the prime of their life lost their lives, and it’s nothing short of tragic.”
Autopsies on the students began Wednesday with the expectation that cause of death for each would be determined, Davison said. Autopsies on the students began Wednesday with the expectation that cause of death for each would be determined, he said. Toxicology tests would be performed if doing so proved relevant, authorities said, and cell phones would be checked to see if texting or other use might have been a factor.
He said State Police were aided after the crash by Clinton County Sheriff’s Department, the Clinton County coroner, the Troop B Collision Reconstruction Unit and the Clinton County district attorney.
Any time there is a fatal accident in the county, DA Andrew Wylie wants to be involved, Davison said.
“This is a complicated investigation. It is certainly tragic, (and) there are a lot of different pieces and parts involved, so we will take our time and make sure it’s done properly.”
A candlelight vigil to celebrate the lives of all four students was set for 8 p.m. at U.S. Oval in Plattsburgh.
News Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.