Former Aspen student dies after shark attack

Joel Stonington
Tessa Horan, center, a former Aspen High School student, died after a shark attack Wednesday in Tonga, an island about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. (Contributed photo)

A shark attack killed a former Aspen High student who was a Peace Corps volunteer on a South Pacific island.Tessa Horan, a student at Aspen High School from 1996-98, died Wednesday near the tiny village of Tu’anuku, on the island of Vava’u in Tonga.Horan was cooling off in the ocean after a soccer game with two boys from the village when she was pulled down by shark. When she resurfaced, most of her right leg was gone, and she died quickly from loss of blood. She was 24 years old. It was believed to be the third shark attack in Tongonese history.Horan’s mother, Kristena Prater, used to own the Aspen Mercantile and splits her time between Aspen and Santa Fe, N.M. Her brother, Kevin Horan, recently graduated from Aspen High School, and her stepfather, Joe Burke, is a longtime resident of Aspen.”She was just such a phenomenal person with so much grace,” Prater said. “I’m going to miss her so much.”

Prater said her daughter had a hard time being away from her family for any length of time, so the Peace Corps was a challenge for her. “She just immediately created her own family in the village where she was,” Prater said. “They fell in love with her. When she was struck by the shark and they got her into the canoe, she died very quickly. They carried her through the village in the rain and everyone was chanting.”Horan had been in Tonga since Jan. 18, teaching soccer, art, English and computer skills to children. “She had gone through a lot of hard times when she first got there and was thinking about coming back,” said her boyfriend, Scott Jones. “Everything turned around. She ended up getting placed in the perfect village, and the last few times I talked to her she was so happy. One of the last letters I received from her she asked me to join her, and I wrote her back and I said I would. The mail was so slow I don’t know if she ever got that response. She said I would learn the man things. I said I didn’t care about any of that and I just wanted to be with her.”Horan completed her sophomore and junior years at Aspen High School, then moved back to Santa Fe. Karen Angus, a counselor at Aspen High remembered her as kind, passionate and artistic. “She was one of those people that cared about humankind,” Angus said. “She was humble, subtle and not one to boast about any of her accomplishments.”

One of Horan’s teachers, Barbara Smith, said, “She wasn’t interested in becoming something. She was always interested in giving something. It sounds like her being in the Peace Corps, that’s exactly what she was doing. Last time I heard from her, she was very excited about going.”Horan’s brother is a paraplegic so she spent a lot of time learning about adaptive ski programs and helping him ski.Horan also worked on the ski patrol at Santa Fe Ski Area and with the Sante Fe Rafting Co. as a kayak instructor for seven years. Cody Sheppard, patrol director for Sante Fe Ski Area, worked with Horan for seven years and wrote her a recommendation for the Peace Corps.”Her actions followed her heart,” Sheppard said. “Once you got to know Tessa, it didn’t end at the end of the workday. She brought the sun with her. Always the bright star.”Another member of the Santa Fe Patrol, Jack Dant, remembered her well.

“Everybody’s just tore up,” he said. “People fall over crying at times, we all love her so much,” he said. “She was small in stature, but her heart and soul was the most positive thing. She would be smiling and singing and dancing on lousy mornings. She was really legit, she wasn’t into partying, and she didn’t do drugs or drink. She was a pure soul out to do good for the world.”Horan graduated from the College of Santa Fe with a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education in 2003 and worked as a substitute for Santa Fe public schools for two years. In Tonga, Tessa wanted to build a library for the village. “One of the last things she asked me to do was to send her material on how to write grants,” Jones said.After she died, her godfather decided to start a fund to help build the library. Already, people have donated more than $10,000, partially through a website: “The dream she had to build this library.” Prater said, “We’re going to finish it for her.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is