A 16-year-old girl found dead in a parked Volkswagen in Drayton Valley, Alta., was a "firecracker" who was always "the life of the party," family members and those who knew her say.

Shaina Ridenour was found in the passenger seat of the idling car at about 3:30 a.m. Thursday, beside the 17-year-old boy in the driver's seat.

Ridenour was pronounced dead at a local hospital. The boy was airlifted to an Edmonton hospital in critical condition. Drayton Valley is 135 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.

RCMP confirmed the 2001 Volkswagen Jetta was found in a parking lot behind the Clean Energy Technology Centre on 24th Avenue.

Drayton Valley sign

Michael Doerksen, mayor of Drayton Valley, calls the tragedy 'a sad, sad story' that will affect the entire town. (CBC)

'She was the life of the party'

Officers at the scene noted a strong odour of exhaust fumes inside the car.

With Christmas just three days away, two families are now coming to terms with what happened, and a small town is coming together to help their neighbours.

"She was more than just a young girl that passed away in Drayton Valley," her sister, Caitlin Ridenour, told CBC News. "She was a daughter, sister, niece, cousin, granddaughter, a best friend. She was the life of the party and the light in so many people's lives.

"She loved her family so much. We were all so close and she was what kept us all together. She was our glue. We will love her and miss her with all of our hearts."

RCMP Cpl. Chris Warren called what happened a "very tragic" accident.

"There's nothing in the investigation that would suggest that there's intent on any of the parties, or anyone else involved, in what happened and the end result," Warren said on Friday.

The car is scheduled to undergo a mechanical inspection two days after Christmas.

"We hope that the examination will bring answers to this tragic loss of life," Warren said.

'Our young firecracker'

Shaina Ridenour, who had three brothers and six sisters, attended Drayton Valley Community Outreach School.

Principal Kim Desmarais told reporters Friday the school "was very proud of our young firecracker."

"She was a blessing to us and will be greatly missed," Desmarais said, fighting back tears.

She described the teenager as "full of spirit" and "full of life."

Ridenour was remembered on the Facebook page of the Drayton Valley Riggers Youth Rugby club as a "rugby family member" who had "a bright future ahead of her."


A photo of Shaina Ridenour posted to the Drayton Valley Riggers Youth Rugby club. (Thinus Van Staden/Facebook)

Tyrone Bradford met Shaina in Grade 7 and described her as a gift from God.

"Shaina always defended her friends and family to the end," he said. "And she defended me when others wanted to pick on me for my race, sexuality, personality, everything. She's now my guardian angel."

Students and staff at the school have sent their best wishes to the families and friends of the two teens, Desmarais said.

"Both these students were incredibly connected, so we know that the grief is far spread."

Those words were echoed by Shelly Cloke, principal of Frank Maddock High School, where the boy attended.

"Words can't do justice for how our school body is feeling right now," Cloke said. "I know our school and community will support everyone and help each other get through this terrible time."

Michael Doerksen, mayor of Drayton Valley, called the tragedy "a sad, sad story" that will affect the entire town.

"When something like this happens, a lot of people are affected by it," he said.

Drayton Valley is a close-knit community, Doerksen said, adding that counselling will be made available to family and friends of the two victims.

"We'll help out everybody that we can," he said.