CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. – Holding candles in paper cups and huddling beneath a sea of umbrellas, the crowd was quiet except for the occasional voices of girls wearing green or tan vests.
They softly sang “Make New Friends” and “On My Honor,” old Girl Scout standards that took on a new meaning during the emotional vigil Sunday night.
Hundreds gathered in the rain to remember the three Girl Scouts and a parent who were struck and killed by a pickup truck that left the road while they picked up trash along a rural highway in western Wisconsin.
The driver fled the scene and later surrendered to authorities. The identities of the victims will be released Monday morning.
“It was heartbreaking,” Tabatha Kolve, 18, said of the tragedy in the nearby community of Lake Hallie.
Kolve, a Girl Scout and a troop leader, helped her fourth-graders assemble 150 candles for the vigil. She drove in from Eleva-Strum, 30 minutes away. “There isn’t much to say because it was so upsetting.”
At a news conference Sunday afternoon, the Chippewa Falls School District said two of the fourth-graders who died attended Halmstad Elementary. A mother who was chaperoning and her daughter, from Southview Elementary, also were killed.
“This is a difficult time for our students, our family and our staff,” said Superintendent Heidi Eliopoulos, who wore a kelly green ribbon from the Girl Scouts. She said about 15 Scouts and chaperones were involved in the cleanup project.
Two memorials, one of them modest, sprung up during the day. A single bouquet of pink, gold and white artificial flowers was affixed to the wooden post of the “Adopt-a-Highway” sign marking the stretch that Troop 3055 is responsible for maintaining.
The sign is about half a mile from the site of the crash, amid houses, farms, stands of birch trees and a sign advertising an apple orchard.
Just before the spot where the troop was hit, several bags of trash and an old tire sat on the ground, likely remnants of what the girls and chaperones picked up Saturday.
In front of Halmstad Elementary, teddy bears, balloons, candles and a bouquet of flowers sat on two wooden benches Sunday afternoon. Inside, dozens of families met with faith leaders and counselors, as they did at Southview.
Girl Scouts CEO Sylvia Acevedo issued a statement Sunday that Girl Scouts everywhere stand with “our sister Girl Scouts in Wisconsin to grieve and comfort one another in the wake of this terrible tragedy.”
Late Saturday morning, two small groups of Girl Scouts from Troop 3055 and their adult companions wore lime-green safety vests as they walked along both sides of County Road P. The fourth-graders had adopted that rural road and performed the community service along it before, clearing the stretch that runs through farmland and residential areas just northwest of Lake Hallie in the spring and fall.
A black pickup speeding by veered off the road into the shallow ditch where some of the girls were walking, killing two of the girls and the mother. The truck then lurched back onto the road and sped away, according to police and witnesses.
Two other Girl Scouts were taken by ambulance and helicopter to a hospital, where one died later Saturday.
The surviving girl, who went to Halmstad, was hospitalized in Rochester late Saturday in critical condition. An update on her condition Sunday was not available.
Amy Schultz, chief operating officer of the Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes, said the deaths haven’t made her doubt the safety of Girl Scout activities.
“It’s important to remember that the girls were being very safe,” said Schultz, who was at the vigil. “They were being Girl Scouts. It’s who we are — we’re leaders and we do community service.”
The driver of the pickup that hit them, Colten Treu, 21, of Chippewa Falls, later was taken into custody.
Treu is being held at the Chippewa County jail, where he is expected to be charged with four counts of homicide through the negligent use of a vehicle, according to Sgt. Daniel Sokup of the Lake Hallie Police Department.
Authorities say the crash occurred before a hill and there were no blind spots. It’s unclear whether Treu was somehow distracted at the time, Sokup said.
A relative of one of the girls who escaped injury said the girls were bagging litter in the grassy area between the road and a farm field near the Hwy. 29 overpass about 11:40 a.m. while another small group worked across the road when Treu’s Ford F-150 ran off the road.
On Sunday, fluorescent orange spray paint marked the path of the truck as it crossed the centerline, left the road and entered the ditch, where it hit the girls and the chaperone. The truck bottomed out and drove back up over a steep embankment.
What appeared to be plastic pieces of the truck’s grill or bumper were in the ditch.
Late Saturday, several law enforcement vehicles were parked at Treu’s home in Chippewa Falls, where investigators were combing through the house, garage and driveway. A tow truck was parked near the garage.
Residents of the area said on social media that they had seen police converge on the house a few hours after the crash, with Treu coming out to give himself up.
Melanie Kollwitz, who lives a few houses from Treu in a townhouse community, said Sunday that she didn’t know him, but she saw six police cars surrounding his home Saturday, trying to get him to come out.
At the news conference Sunday, Eliopoulos said Treu is a graduate of the Chippewa Falls School District.
At the vigil Sunday night, Kari Mero of Chippewa Falls brought her therapy dog, Boots, because, she said, “I care about people and he cares about people.”
Crying, she said she drove by the scene of the accident just minutes before it occurred.
“I saw them working,” she said of the troop, “just doing what Girl Scouts are for.”
Staff writers Liz Sawyer and Miguel Otárola contributed to this report.