'Two little girls having fun in the snow' turns to tragedy outside Arlington Heights church
It wasn't unusual to see 12-year-old Esther Jung and a friend making a snow fort outside their Elk Grove Village home, next-door neighbor Peg Gradl says.
She was doing the same Sunday near the Arlington Heights church where her dad is pastor when authorities say a snow pile collapsed and claimed her life.
"Just having fun. How sad is that. Two little girls just having fun in snow," said Gradl, who described the sixth-grader as a sweet girl who helped her carry things from the car to the house. "It's so normal, but it's a danger we don't often think of. The snow comes and goes, so we don't think of it being dangerous."
Gradl, a neighbor of the Jung family for about five years, said Esther was the youngest of three children and loved animals. Her pets included a hamster, rabbit and dog.
She died as a result of asphyxia and hypothermia due to entrapment in the snow bank, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office, which performed an autopsy Monday. The office ruled her death accidental.
Authorities say the snow fort collapsed on top of her and a 9-year-old girl outside Rothem Church, 106 E. College Drive, where they were playing Sunday afternoon.
While snow completely covered Esther, 9-year-old Sophia Shin was up to her chest in snow and yelled for help, according to Jae Kim, the younger girl's great-uncle.
"She cried out, 'Help me. Help me,' but nobody heard it," Kim said Monday.
A bouquet of flowers was placed in the snow Monday outside the church, a Korean Christian congregation on the north side of Arlington Heights. Meanwhile at the family home on the west side of Elk Grove Village, family members gathered to console one another. They declined to comment.
The girls were attending services with their families at the church Sunday when they went outside to play, police said. After they hadn't returned about an hour later, family members started searching for them and found them under the snow. Authorities say the girls built a makeshift fort, which then collapsed.
Rescue crews responded to the scene at 2:41 p.m., and the girls were taken to Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. Esther was pronounced dead at 4:30 p.m., according to the medical examiner's office.
Sophia was treated for hypothermia and was being held for observation, officials said.
Kim described Esther as an energetic and smart student.
She attended Collins Elementary School in Schaumburg, where the school's principal spoke with Esther's family Monday to provide support and any resources they might need, according to Terri McHugh, a spokeswoman for Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54.
While school was not in session Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, counselors will be available first thing Tuesday morning for any students or school staff who may need support, McHugh said.
Police are calling the incident a "tragic accident."
• Daily Herald staff writer Lauren Rohr contributed to this report.