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Daughter of former Bemidji residents dies in car accident in Fargo

Amanda Leininger's school picture

Amanda and Jessica Leininger should have played a duet of "Amazing Grace" on the piano Thursday night.

Instead, their family was planning funeral arrangements for 8-year-old Amanda, who died Wednesday after a car crash that occurred while 15-year-old Jessica was driving them to school.

The family, who lived in Bemidji for 12 years before moving to Fargo eight years ago, is grateful that 5-year-old sister Abby was home with the flu Wednesday, because otherwise she would also have been in the back seat, said the girls' uncle, Roger Fenstad.

Jessica was released from the hospital Thursday with bumps and bruises but no broken bones.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said a rut in South University Drive caused the fatal accident.

The city of Fargo has hired an independent private investigator to look into when city workers were notified of the rut, City Administrator Pat Zavoral said.

The rut was blamed for crashes Monday and Tuesday mornings. Police are investigating it as one of several possible factors in Wednesday's accident.

Walaker said police officials told him preliminary reports from the investigation indicate 15-year-old Jessica Leininger was stuck in the rut while driving along University Drive.

"She dropped her wheel into this rut, then she tried to correct and she turned so she was perpendicular to the highway and she was broadsided," Walaker said.

"It was a significant rut in the shoulder," he added.

Walaker said the police investigation will continue for a couple of weeks.

City officials say a street crew was en route to fix the rut when the fatal accident occurred about 7:50 a.m. on South University Drive just north of El Cano Drive.

Jessica drove her two sisters every morning from their south Fargo home to Shanley High School, where Jessica is a sophomore.

The younger girls would then take a bus to Holy Spirit Elementary in north Fargo. Amanda was in third grade and Abby is a kindergartner.

The girls also have twin 3-year-old brothers, Adam and Jordan.

"What's really neat is how Amanda was a little mother to her sister and her two little brothers," Fenstad said. "She took care of them to no end."

Whenever the family got in their van to go somewhere, Amanda would be the first to make sure her siblings were buckled, he said.

Amanda's death has been hard on the family, but her parents, Curt and Cynthia Leininger, have a large support network in the area, Fenstad said.

Locally, the family has many supporters, including longtime friends Annette and Henry Drewes of Bemidji.

"They have a whole network of friends here," Annette Drewes said. "We've spread the word. ... They were well involved with the community."

Curt Leininger formerly worked at Bob Lowth Ford in Bemidji and Cynthia Leininger was a dental hygienist for Dr. Doug Williams. Jessica, who attended St. Philip's School, is the same age as the Dreweses' daughter, Bailey.

"We were their next-door neighbors," Drewes said. "We became friends almost immediately. They still come here every year and we still go there. They were just here over the Fourth of July. They love coming back here to visit friends and go fishing."

Drewes described Amanda as "a barrel of sunshine with a Tigger tail. She loved Winnie the Pooh. She had a Tigger toy that bounced like Tigger and she imitated him.

"She never sat still. She always smiled. She was just a sweetheart."

The Dreweses planned to attend the funeral at 11 a.m. today at Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church in Fargo.

"She's going to be missed," Drewes said. "They're going to need a lot of prayers to get through this."

In Fargo, Holy Spirit and Shanley held prayer services Thursday attended by students, parents, staff and relatives of the Leininger family.

"People from school have been extremely gracious," Fenstad said. "That's very, very kind and everybody really appreciates it very much."

Kyle Edgerton, superintendent of the Fargo Catholic Schools Network, said the small school system is pulling together to support one another.

"We celebrate our successes and we come together to support each other in our sorrows," he said.

During the prayer services, students asked a lot of questions to try to understand why this happened, he said.

"I think it hits home for them because this kind of a thing could happen to any one of them as well," Edgerton said.

The best support people can offer for the family are their prayers, Fenstad said.

"It's a hard time for them and it takes a lot of prayers and time to get through," Fenstad said. "There'll be a lot of struggles."

Amanda, who would have turned 9 on Dec. 27, was smart in school and loved to swim, ride bike, and play soccer and basketball, her uncle said.

She took piano lessons from her aunt, Jan Fenstad, for two years.

Amanda had seven songs memorized for the recital she planned for her family Thursday at her aunt's home.

In addition to Christmas songs like "Little Drummer Boy" and "Up on the Housetop," Amanda was going to play a duet of "Amazing Grace" with Jessica.

"Amanda was a bright, bubbly little girl, just a beautiful little girl," Fenstad said. "I can't say enough accolades about her."