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Driver in crash says he lost 'best friend'

Policemen examine the scene of a minivan crash

Policemen examine the scene of a minivan crash near Turangi, New Zealand. (May 12, 2012) Credit: AP

The Long Island student who was driving a minivan that flipped on a rural New Zealand road this month, killing three of his Boston University classmates, has spoken out about the pain of losing his "best friend."

At a memorial service attended by about 200 people Saturday evening in Auckland, New Zealand, the driver, Stephen Houseman, 20, of Massapequa, was supported and hugged by his parents and friends.

The service came a day after Houseman made his first court appearance in Auckland after being charged by New Zealand authorities with seven counts of careless driving causing injury or death. Each carries a maximum jail term of three months.

Houseman was one of 26 Boston University students studying a semester in New Zealand and Australia who were traveling in three minivans on May 12 to a volcanic crater hike when one van rolled over.

Those killed in the crash were Austin Brashears of Huntington Beach, Calif.; Daniela Lekhno of Manalapan, N.J., and Roch Jauberty of Paris.

Houseman was injured and appeared in court with his arm in a sling.

Newspaper publisher Fairfax Media reported that during the service Saturday at Auckland University's Maclaurin Chapel, Houseman said Brashears had become his best friend after the two students met at the airport on their way to New Zealand.

They were excited about walking the Tongariro Crossing and seeing the peak they called "Mount Doom," after scenes from the "Lord of the Rings" movies were shot there, Houseman said.

"Every memory I have associated with New Zealand, Austin is right there," he said. "Kayaking the Milford Sounds, zorbing, white-water rafting and sand-boarding. He was my pal, my confidante."

Houseman recalled the pair shared a love of Disney songs and Harry Potter, Fairfax Media reported.

"I thought I was the only guy who knew the words to almost every Disney classic song, but Austin impressed me by knowing more," he said.

He added, according to Fairfax, "Austin was my best friend. He still is my best friend, and he will always be my best friend. I want you to know if I have a son, I will name him after you. And if my wife disagrees, I will get a new wife. I love you so much."

Houseman and four other students were injured. All have since been released from local hospitals except Meg Theriault, 21, who remains in critical condition at Waikato Hospital.

The hospital said Sunday that Theriault was breathing on her own for the first time since the crash after a breathing tube was removed Friday.

Parents Todd and Deb Theriault of Boston said their daughter's progress is heartening, according to a statement released by the hospital. The couple said they have met with Houseman's parents.

"We feel their pain and he now has a journey of recovery much like our daughter does," the Theriaults said. "We understand there needs to be a court process and we support it.

"But that could have been any one of our kids at the wheel. This was an accident -- all our kids were pursuing their dream. Nobody was intentionally doing anything that would harm anyone," they said.

In a statement Friday, police inspector Kevin Taylor said charging Houseman "is not a decision taken lightly." However, he added, "We are faced with a situation where three people have died and others are seriously injured and we must apply the law."

Police have said the single-vehicle wreck appeared to occur after the minivan drifted to the side of the road and the driver overcorrected, causing the van to roll several times.

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