Thomas Dunnuck and his three children were supposed to spend Christmas with his parents in Etna Green, Ind.
But just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, their trip was cut short near Alexandria, Minn., in an accident that killed the 48-year-old West Fargo man and his two sons, Samuel, 15, and Gabriel, 12.
His 8-year-old daughter, Annie, was rushed to St. Cloud (Minn.) Hospital in critical condition. Annie, who had told a friend she was excited about the trip east, was upgraded to fair condition Thursday afternoon.
The Minnesota State Patrol released the identities of the victims Thursday morning, and relatives and friends struggled to make sense of the news on what was meant to be a day of celebration.
They remembered the Dunnuck boys as good students, disciplined athletes and music lovers - and their father as a man who was always at their sports games and recitals.
"I was shocked, totally; it didn't seem real," said Sue Fliginger, a friend of the children's mom, Dianna Kappleman-Beyer of Fargo. "It just doesn't seem fair."
Forst Dunnuck, Thomas' father, said his son's six siblings and their families had flocked to Etna Green. At Christmas dinner, they made a point of focusing on cheerful memories of Thomas and his sons, such as Samuel's efforts to fix an old tractor on an uncle's farm this past summer.
"We're doing very well," Dunnuck said. "We have a strong belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, and he has sustained us. We realize it's the Lord's timing."
Kappleman-Beyer, a MeritCare nurse, and the children's stepfather, Dean, drove to St. Cloud. Janeen Kobrinsky, the rabbi at Fargo's Temple Beth El, said she spoke every few hours with Kappleman-Beyer, a member of the temple.
"We're just all reeling from this," Kobrinsky said. "The whole community is reeling. It's a horrible tragedy."
According to the Minnesota State Patrol, Samuel was driving the family's Chevy Trailblazer on an icy Interstate 94 near Alexandria. He lost control of the car just as it was about to pass a semi stopped on the eastbound shoulder. The semi driver, Darrell Albertson, 69, of Fergus Falls, Minn., had pulled over to help the driver and passenger of a Toyota Corolla that had slid off the road.
The Trailblazer hit the back of the semi and crossed the eastbound traffic lanes before crashing into the Corolla. Albertson and the Corolla driver and passenger were not injured.
Samuel, who would have turned 16 in March, had a driver's permit, his grandfather said.
On Thursday, relatives and friends pieced together snapshots of Dunnuck and his sons.
Thomas, a member of south Fargo's Bethel Evangelical Church, had worked at Dow AgroScience, an Indianapolis-based agricultural company, since graduating from Indiana's Purdue University, said his father. He liked to take his children fishing in Detroit Lakes.
"He was very outgoing, very jovial," said Forst Dunnuck. "He was a good father."
Gabriel, a student at Carl Ben Eielson, played the saxophone in his school band. He landed on the Fargo Fliers hockey team this fall after months of daily trips to a nearby rink to practice.
"I know Gabe worked really hard to be good enough to play for the team," said neighbor Shirley Blumer. When he made the team, "It was really a big deal for him."
Samuel, said Blumer's daughter Emily, 15, was a popular student at Fargo South High School: "A lot of people liked him. He was nice and funny."
He played baseball and, like his siblings, took piano lessons. On Thursday, his friends created a commemorative page for him on the social networking site Facebook, which soon featured more than 200 members and more than 50 posts.
"They were both busy boys, just one thing after another," said Fliginger, the family friend.
Earlier that day, she had sat down her son and daughter by the Christmas tree to tell them their good friends Gabe and Annie had been in a tragic accident. "You're kidding, right?" her son said. Her daughter cried all morning. Annie had told her she was really looking forward to the trip to Indiana.
"I'm just praying really hard for the family," Fliginger said, "and wishing I could do something."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529