Coroner says Gannon student likely died of hypothermia

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Abbie Brynda was "absolutely irreplaceable," her big sister said.

"We were talking today, and one of the things that was said was that her death was a tragedy but her life was not," said Carrie Ruth Wharrey, 28, of her younger sister, a 21-year-old nursing student at Gannon University in Erie who died Saturday after she was found unresponsive in an alley. "Abbie was an amazing person and she did everything for everyone else."

Police are still investigating, and Erie Coroner Lyell P. Cook said Monday that although Ms. Brynda's body had "superficial" wounds, preliminary autopsy results indicate that the 2011 Seneca Valley High graduate from Zelienople died of hypothermia. Mr. Cook said she was not assaulted.

Ms. Brynda was last seen the night before at a nearby party. The official cause and manner of her death is pending results of lab tests.

"They're still interviewing friends and still piecing together what happened," said Erie police Lt. Stan Green. "It does not look to be suspicious in any way right now. ... It appears to be, again, not criminally related. It appears that it is a tragic event."

Her body was found in a fenced-in area between an old city firehouse and a commercial building near West 12th and Sassafras streets in downtown Erie, just steps away from the second floor apartment at 144 W. 12th St. where the party took place, police said. She was found about 4 p.m. Saturday and died later that evening at UPMC Hamot in Erie.

"As far as we can gather, she was there that whole time," said Lt. Green, adding that the location made it plausible that she might have lain there unnoticed. "There's no signs that she was taken anywhere. ... We're just trying to figure out what happened. We're not sure exactly why she got separated from her friends."

Her family is also waiting for answers. "We know what everyone else knows," Mrs. Wharrey said, though she expressed confidence in the investigation. "We trust that they know what they're doing and that they're doing all the right things."

Mrs. Wharrey said her younger sister was studious and never in trouble, and rarely bought gifts for friends and relatives, preferring instead to make them jewelry, blankets, hats, key chains or dream catchers.

"She was a very selfless person. She just wanted to care for people," Mrs. Wharrey said. "She was a very caring, nurturing person."

Ms. Brynda had participated in mission trips to Gulfport, Miss., and the Dominican Republic and was a dedicated sister to both her siblings, including her twin, Vanessa Brynda, and her sorority at Gannon, Sigma Sigma Sigma, Mrs. Wharrey said.

A campus memorial service was held Sunday morning in her honor, and Sigma Sigma Sigma president Alexis Tamok said in a statement that the chapter is "deeply saddened and heartbroken over Abbie's death."

The chapter is made up of "a group of strong women who together will lean on each other for support as we attempt to overcome this devastating tragedy," Ms. Tamok wrote. "We will always remember her as a generous, caring member of Tri Sigma as Abbie was active in our efforts to promote service on campus and within the community."


Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published February 3, 2014 11:36 AM

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