Katie Puwalowski got her passport last week. The 19-year-old from Lawrenceville had been saving money all summer, and she was excited about the prospect of traveling to Brazil for a service trip next spring.
On Monday night, she wasn't on her way to the airport. She was on her way back.
Her boyfriend, Dean Graner, a fellow student at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, had just returned from his own service trip, this one to China, and she picked him up at Pittsburgh International Airport.
"She was so excited to see Dean," her best friend, Marina Rutherford, 18, of Shaler, said today.
She was driving east on the Parkway near Carnegie at about 11:15 p.m. when a tire fell off a Jeep Grand Cherokee driving west. The tire bounced across the concrete barrier and struck the roof of Ms. Puwalowski's car. She was taken to UPMC Mercy and pronounced dead at 12:35 p.m. Tuesday. Mr. Graner was able to steer the car to the side of the road. He was treated at a hospital and released.
"Within a second, that's all it takes," said Marina's mother, Adele Rutherford.
It may have happened in just a second, but it will take much longer for the close-knit community at North Catholic High School, where Ms. Puwalowski graduated in 2011, to understand what happened, said Michael J. Pindred II, the school's principal.
"We're very taken aback by it," he said, describing her death as a "tremendous loss."
"She was one of the students that more or less epitomized what we want North Catholic students to represent," he said.
Ms. Puwalowski, a young woman Mrs. Rutherford described as artistic and deeply religious, lived in Lawrenceville with her father, Walter, and her brother, Matthew.
She attended Saint Vincent's with the help of several scholarships, Mrs. Rutherford said, and planned to study art, but social work caught her eye instead, and she changed her college major to sociology.
The service trip to Brazil was why she worked as many hours as she could for Common Plea catering, Downtown, and last week, she was excited when her passport arrived.
"She was so thrilled," Mrs. Rutherford said.
The family is struggling to pay for funeral arrangements, Mrs. Rutherford said, so donations can be made either at the Hahn Funeral Home & Cremation Services at 123 North Ave. in Millvale or at wepay.com/donations/71539.