GAUTIER, Miss. – A 21-year-old woman was killed at a highway rest stop in Mississippi on Tuesday when she was struck by a pair of tires that came loose from a passing tractor-trailer, authorities said.
Margaret Maurer, a senior at Tulane University, who went by the nickname "Meg," was traveling with a couple of friends for a spring break trip and had stopped at a rest area off Interstate 10 eastbound near Gautier, Mississippi, on Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, an 18-wheeler driving westbound on the highway somehow lost one of its rear dual tires.
The pair of massive tires, which are bolted together and weigh roughly 500 pounds, flew off the tractor-trailer, crossed the median strip and eastbound lanes then entered the parking lot of the rest area as Maurer was walking back to the car with her friends. The tires traveled about 850 feet before hitting her, according to the Gautier Police Department.
Maurer was pronounced dead at the scene.
"It's traumatizing of course for the young ladies that were there and the family," Capt. Casey Baxter of the Gautier Police Department told ABC News in a telephone interview Thursday. "It's heartbreaking for everybody. She was truly a victim."
The tires also damaged two vehicles, but nobody else was hurt.
The driver of the 18-wheeler realized something had detached and pulled over as soon as he could, police said. It's unclear exactly what caused the tires to come loose, but investigators believe it was a freak accident due to equipment failure. Police don't suspect any wrongdoing on the driver's part.
"I really want to be angry at somebody, but I can't be. It just happened," Maurer's mother, Tracy Nelson Maurer, told ABC affiliate KSTP in a recent interview. "It's absolutely a random, freaky thing. It's not right. There's so much that's wrong about this, but it's just random."
Maurer, who was from Forest Lake, Minnesota, was set to graduate from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she was majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology.
"Meg, a 2019 Newcomb Scholar who had studied abroad in Ecuador, was an extraordinarily gifted student and a leader among her peers," Tulane University president Mike Fitts said in a statement Wednesday. "She was planning to graduate in May to pursue a career in scientific illustration — a field that combined her skill as a scientist, her incredible artistic talent and her love of nature."
The school plans "in the near future" to mount an exhibition of Maurer's illustrations in the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, according to Fitts.
Thomas Sherry, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University, said he taught Maurer in several courses and was always impressed by her "outstanding" academic achievement and "go-getter" mentality. But Sherry, who is currently on sabbatical, recently got to know Maurer as an artist while she drew scientific illustrations for his independent book project on birds and the anthropods they feed on in the tropics.
Since the start of the academic year, Maurer has completed eight of these images for Sherry's book. He still plans to use them, he said.
"They're just spectacular, they're beautiful," Sherry told ABC News in a telephone interview Thursday. "I realized these were not only accurate, realistic, biological illustrations but also these were works of art."
"She captured the eyes and the postures and incredible textures," he added.
Sherry encouraged Maurer to display her drawings in an art exhibit on campus, something which she was planning to do later this year, he said.
"At the very least," Sherry noted, "we have this incredible memorial to her that I hope to use in various ways to shine a light on what an outstanding student she was."
Memorial services in honor of Maurer will be held on campus and in her hometown in the coming days.
"She was a really special person, so it's all the more painful," Sherry told ABC News. "I don't get to know every student as well as I do Meg."