Medard Prosper lost both of his parents during the civil war in his native Democratic Republic of Congo, and three of his siblings died of malnutrition and disease.
Prosper, 19, escaped the atrocities but planned to return there one day to help children like him, orphaned by war. First, he was going to earn a diploma from St. Paul Highland Park High School in June and then planned to earn a college degree.
Thursday about 5:30 p.m. the vehicle Prosper was driving east over the Minnesota River on the Mendota Bridge blew a tire. As he tried to get out of the moving car, his foot got caught and the vehicle ran over him, the State Patrol said.
He died at the scene.
Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske said Friday that Prosper, who was alone in the car, had a driver's permit that required a licensed driver to accompany him.
News of his death didn't reach some school staff and students until early Friday morning.
"This is a difficult thing," said Sarah Schmidt de Carranza, Prosper's English language learning teacher. "He was the most driven and optimistic person I have ever had in my class. To overcome what he did and pass away in a car accident is tragic."
Prosper, 19, was in his first year at Highland, (he transferred from LEAP High School, which serves students who recently moved to the United States or have limited English skills), but had touched many of the school's 1,350 students after his survival story appeared in the school newspaper, said Principal Winston Tucker.
He was known for his dedication to academics, his infectious smile and his positive attitude. He was grateful for a second chance at life and was pursuing the American dream. In November, Prosper was awarded a college scholarship from the St. Paul Optimist Club in recognition for his tenacity, work ethic and perseverance.
"That is what makes this story even more tragic," Tucker said. "He's seen more in his short life and experienced more tragic world experiences than our students, thankfully, will experience in a lifetime. To lose his life in a freak car accident is unfair; it's sad."
A somber Adetutu Adebowale held back tears as she recounted the conversations she had with Prosper during lunch periods."He was a kind, loving person," the junior said. "He was happy to be here."
Prosper was 14 when his parents were killed in Africa. He and his brothers and sisters trekked 500 miles to a refugee camp in Tanzania, but two of his six siblings died of malnutrition along the way. Another died soon after in the camp.
The United Nations Refugee Agency arranged for him and his two older brothers to immigrate to the United States. They moved to Minnesota last year.
In an interview in January with the Plaid Line, Highland Park High's online newspaper, Prosper described the camp where he spent three years as "a hard place. Disease, malnutrition ... you lived on less than a dollar a day."
Coming to the United States, he said, made him feel like "I was born for the second time. ... I started everything over -- how to eat, how to speak, even how to sleep."
Prosper was looking forward to studying international relations in college and returning to his homeland to help others. His spirit and drive were among the reasons he was awarded the $1,500 scholarship.
"He was just a kid of unbelievable humility," said John Tillotson, who oversees the scholarship program, which chose Prosper and 14 others to honor out of about 120 applicants.
"He was fluent in five different languages, and in the last three years was really picking up his English skills," Tillotson added. "But when you talked to him it was like, 'I haven't done anything.'"
Tucker said the school might organize an effort to raise money to support his two older brothers and charities Prosper supported.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039