Irina Yarmolenko

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Irina "Ira" Yarmolenko had a sunny spirit, a quick smile and friends everywhere she went.

She wasn't supposed to die at age 20, friends and family said.

The UNC Charlotte sophomore was found Monday next to her car on the banks of the Catawba River in Mount Holly. On Wednesday evening, police still did not know how Yarmolenko died and how she ended up so far from campus.

Tonight, her friends will honor her with a candlelight vigil.

Yarmolenko was born in the Ukraine but grew up in Chapel Hill. Her brother, Pavel Yarmolenko, 25, said their family moved to North Carolina in the 1990s as refugees. Their parents found science jobs in Greensboro and later moved to Chapel Hill.

Pavel, a graduate student in biomedical engineering at Duke University, described his sister as a dedicated student who loved to travel and learn about other cultures. She played piano and tennis.

"She was incredible," he said. "There's nothing bad about her."

She graduated from Chapel Hill High in 2006 and began studying at UNCC.

There, she was a member of the Russian Club and more recently, a photographer and occasional writer for the student newspaper. She also worked as a computer assistant.

Her brother said she'd always talked about doing something to help people make their lives better or easier.

"Everything that she's ever done was to help people," he said.

She'd planned to transfer to UNC Chapel Hill to major in public health after finishing this semester in Charlotte, he said.

Arthur Jackson, vice chancellor for student affairs at UNCC, said students and staff who knew Yarmolenko were offered counseling Wednesday. He said university police were helping Mount Holly investigators.

"It hit us hard," he said. "It's like losing a family member. She was connected to a lot of organizations on and off campus."

As her brother put it: "She knew everybody everywhere."

She had 630 friends on her Facebook profile. By Wednesday evening, more than 100 of them had posted messages there saying how much they'll miss her.

Her friend Tyler Robinson, a sophomore at UNCC, said she was "the most beautiful person I've ever met, inside and out. She was completely selfless."

Mount Holly Police Chief David Belk said he's hoping the public can help police figure out more about where she had been Monday between about 10 a.m., when someone reported seeing her at a coffee shop in the university area, to 1:15 p.m. when she was found by a watercraft rider.

Belk said she appeared to have driven off the road behind the Waters Edge development and the Stowe Family YMCA.

"It's strange that anyone would go to that area," he said, noting that there had not been reports of crime there.

Pavel said he hopes this tragedy will prompt people to think about all students who died too young.

"Don't forget to tell your loved ones that you love them," Pavel said, breaking into tears. "I didn't get a chance to, and I can tell you I wish I had."

Memorials

A candlelight vigil will be held at the Belk Tower on the UNC Charlotte campus at 7 tonight.Visitation will be held at Walker's Funeral Home, 120 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill (919-942-3861) from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday. She will be buried at 4 p.m. Saturday in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.

The investigation

Police are still looking for more information about Yarmolenko's death. Contact Mount Holly Police at 704-827-4343.

Published in Charlotte Observer from May 8 to May 13, 2008