Feb. 29, 2012 at 8:13 AM ET
The family of 14-year-old Ashley Long can’t believe their girl is gone.
Ashley, an eighth-grader from Eagle Point, Ore., collapsed and died suddenly after inhaling helium at a party earlier this month.
“You're just like, ‘Did that just happen?’ you know?” her mother, Loriann Earp, told TODAY. “Did we just pick out a coffin? Because we're supposed to pick out a prom dress before you pick out coffins.”
The tragedy unfolded on Feb. 18, when Ashley told her parents she was going to a slumber party. Instead, she piled into a car with friends and went to a party in nearby Medford, Ore., where police say teenagers were given alcohol and marijuana.
“She was just trying to fit in,” her mother said. “I think she was pressured to take the first drink. I just can't picture her drinking at all.”
Partygoers then turned to inhaling helium, a party trick that makes your voice sound funny. Ashley was the last to take a hit directly from the pressurized tank. She passed out and died shortly after of an air embolism, a rare death related to helium gas.
A girl who saw the deadly experiment described the night to Ashley’s stepfather, Justin Earp.
“She said she saw her eyes rolled,” Earp said. “She tried to catch herself. She saw her getting dizzy, and tried to catch herself and was going backwards. Her eyes rolled back in her head and then she fell over and that was it.”
Ashley, who aspired to be a scientist and loved photography, was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.
Ashley’s mother recalled the teenager as a “social butterfly,” adding: “She just wanted to laugh.”
She had a bright future, her stepfather said. “She was smart,” Justin Earp told TODAY. “She was going to be a marine biologist. I mean, she was going places.”
Authorities have not yet decided whether to bring charges in Ashley’s death.
Katherine McAloon, 27, who lives at the home where the party was held, was charged with providing alcohol and marijuana to minors. She’s free on bail and due in court next month.
Meanwhile, Ashley’s family has created Ashley’s Hope, a foundation to raise awareness about peer pressure and alcohol and drugs, including helium.
Justin Earp says no parent is immune to this kind of tragedy.
“This can happen to anybody out there, not just us,” he said.
Read the latest stories from TODAY Health: