Tomeka Wiley tailed the white car that rear-ended her Jeep in downtown Minneapolis, giving a 911 operator a play-by-play account Monday night as the swerving car barreled onto a park path near the Mississippi River — and then plunged into the water.

Still on the phone, she and her nephew dashed to the smashed fence near the Stone Arch Bridge and watched as the car sank below the surface.

“It went down so fast, like all we saw was the roof of the car and bubbles,” said Wiley, 33, of Columbia Heights. “Oh my God, it was just so scary.”

Authorities and the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office said Tuesday night they were trying to determine whether the plunge was accidental or intentional and whether alcohol or drugs were involved.

Tuesday, the many friends and family of the car’s driver, Darron Luhrsen, were trying to come to grips with the shocking death of the ministry student from North Central University.

Wiley said, she, too, was saddened — and still in disbelief.

The trouble began several blocks away — and minutes earlier — from where Luhrsen crashed, police and Wiley said, with two hit-and-run accidents.

First, Luhrsen’s vehicle crashed into a traffic signal at 4th Street and Chicago Avenue S. In the second accident, the Pontiac Sunbird rear-ended Wiley at Washington and Park Avenues S.

Wiley had just picked up her 21-year-old nephew, Cary Williams Jr., when she noticed the Sunbird being driven erratically as she prepared to turn from Portland Avenue onto Washington.

“I saw him swerving behind me, and I said to my nephew, ‘Somebody’s drunk on Monday.’ ”

The car stopped at a red light, she said, adding that “he was coming real fast behind us, but then he stopped; he didn’t hit us the first time.”

The light turned green. She pulled ahead, but the Sunbird stayed put briefly. “When we were right by the Metrodome, I saw him coming real fast, swerving again, and then he hit the pole that’s right there” with a loud bang, she said.

She stopped at another red light, and as the Sunbird raced toward them, Wiley and Williams braced for a crash. The car stopped just in time.

“He was there for a minute,” she said. “All of a sudden I heard a car revving an engine, like when you push your pedal to the metal. It was like vroom and then boom! He slammed right into us, and he pivoted us around.”

Her vehicle spun and Wiley said she could have reached out and touched his car.

“I was facing him, and as he passed, I looked dead at him,” Wiley said, describing a white man in his 20s or 30s, wearing glasses.

“He looked so angry,” Wiley said.

She wheeled around, her Jeep now clattering loudly, and followed the stranger. Her nephew called 911 as she pulled up close to get the car’s license plate number.

“He went up on the part where the people walk, and the 911 operator was asking me where I was. I didn’t know the streets. All I saw was the Gold Medal Flour [building], and I told her that. As soon as I said that, he had done a U-turn and went right into the water, into the river.”

As a crowd watched, authorities used an underwater camera to find the car about 40 feet from shore and hoisted it from the river.

Luhrsen was a popular, successful student at North Central with a high grade-point average, said Michael White, vice president of university relations.

Luhrsen, who was about to begin his fourth year, was widely known and well-liked, White said. He was “a charismatic young guy, showing a ton of promise. We’re taking the news hard.”

Luhrsen had a year-round apartment on the grounds of the campus at 910 Elliott Av. S. He was active at a local church, where he worked, White said.

Luhrsen wanted “to inspire people to live a life worthy of a high calling and being good citizens,” White said.

Personal difficulties

Luhrsen had a rough start in life, born as a preemie addicted to heroin and cocaine, said John Theurer of Lakeville, who with his wife, Lisa, took Luhrsen in three years ago.

Luhrsen bounced from foster home to foster home with 60 addresses over the years, John Theurer said. “He was an absolutely wonderful kid who never got a break.”

Luhrsen had two drunken-driving convictions and had a 2006 conviction for robbery. In July 2008, he was arrested again for drunken driving and went to treatment at Teen Challenge, a faith-based program.

It came just in time, Theurer said.

“The year before he went into Teen Challenge, he overdosed six times and was pronounced dead four times, but he kept coming back,” John Theurer said. “He went into Teen Challenge, and it really made an impact on him.”

The Theurers’ son had met Luhrsen during his two-year stay at Teen Challenge. After his first six months in treatment, Luhrsen gave up and chose to go back to prison. The treatment center persuaded him to return.

His troubles with the law abated and, three years ago, Luhrsen began college, majoring in church leadership with a focus on youth ministry.

“He certainly was turning his life around,” White said.

In addition to his studies, Luhrsen also worked at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Lakeville with youth. “His mission was to help kids who struggled with the same things he did,” John Theurer said.

Recently, however, the Theurers suspected he’d been drinking again while grappling with personal problems.

“For the last couple of months, he’s had struggles and I would just say his demons got to him,” Theurer said.