By Roger McKinney
Globe Staff Writer
ALTAMONT, Kan. - What is being a called a "celebration of life" service to honor three Labette County High School students and their teacher has been set for 6 p.m. Friday at Parsons Municipal Auditorium.
The bodies of Danielle Tongier, 18, Andrew Harpstrite, 17, and Jessica Pierce, 17, have been recovered. Brett Carlson, their Spanish teacher, was still missing as of Wednesday afternoon.
The teens were swept out to sea while swimming Saturday off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and Carlson went in after them.
Tongier graduated in May and was planning to attend the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The Labette County School District issued a news release Wednesday afternoon announcing Friday's ceremony. The announcement states that written tributes will be collected at the service to be given to the families. The tributes may be taken to the service, or stationery will be available at the service for that purpose.
Kristy Scheuer, 19, a student at Independence Community College, took the trip with the group because she had talked with Carlson about taking the trip when she was a student at Labette County High School.
She said she and others in the group had been swimming for hours without incident when the weather turned bad about 5 p.m. Saturday. She said it began to rain, and the current was pulling the swimmers out to sea. Carlson was calling for the group to return to shore.
"I couldn't breathe anymore because I kept being pushed under the waves," Scheuer said.
She said she called for help, and Carlson went in after her.
"When he got to me, he was holding me above the water because I was having a hard time standing up," Scheuer said. "So that helped a lot, being able to breathe a little bit and just know there was hope."
She said they became separated, and the waves pushed Carlson out to sea. A stranger helped her get the rest of the way back to the beach.
Pierce went into the ocean to try to help others, Scheuer said. Pierce was a lifeguard at the Altamont city pool, and assistant pool manager Tylie Spruill on Monday said she was a great person and a good worker. Pierce's body was recovered Tuesday. Tongier's body was found Saturday, and Harpstrite's body was recovered Sunday.
School district Superintendent Dennis Wilson said Wednesday that Scheuer's account was consistent with what he had learned from other students after their return on Monday.
"They had been swimming at least two hours," Wilson said. "All of a sudden, the waves started coming in pretty high. It started to rain. It started getting dark from the storm."
Wilson said he was still trying to piece together the details of the incident. He said the students were under such emotional stress that their accounts differ some.
Wilson said Harpstrite's parents were in Costa Rica on Wednesday to bring back his body. He said they also were talking with eyewitnesses to try to gain a better understanding of what happened.
Wilson on Monday said Carlson had saved two other students before being swept away. He said Wednesday that it was at least two students and maybe three, including Scheuer.
"Another young lady said he definitely helped her," Wilson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The trip to Costa Rica was arranged through EF Educational Tours, with North American headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. The company released a press statement saying it has had grief counselors available for the families of the victims and for the surviving students.
"This is a devastating accident and our hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones," the statement reads in part. "We are committed to helping them in any way we can."
By Roger McKinney
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