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A 20-year-old University of Montana student died this week after slipping and falling 25 feet from a building in downtown Missoula.

Jennifer Kaylin "Jenna" Ness, of Huson, died Tuesday afternoon from head injuries suffered in the fall, which occurred early Monday morning in an alleyway behind Main Street, between North Higgins Avenue and Ryman Street.

Missoula Police Sgt. Travis Welsh said investigators have ruled the death an accident, and a coroner said the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.

The accident occurred at approximately 1:15 a.m. Monday while Ness was celebrating the birthdays of two friends. She scaled a fire escape and was attempting to climb atop a roof behind two downtown bars, the Rhinoceros and the Missoula Club, when she slipped and fell.

"While she was climbing the building, she slipped and fell and pretty much landed right on her head," said older sister Tara Ness. "By Tuesday, we understood that the amount of brain damage she sustained would not allow her to have an existence that she would have liked. She would have been in a vegetative state."

Friends say Ness had consumed some alcohol during the course of the night, but not for at least two hours prior to the fall. A toxicology report from the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula had not been completed on Friday, according to Lt. Rich Maricelli of the Missoula County Sheriff's Office.

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A close friend, Kylie Minogue, was with Ness that evening and witnessed the fall. She said Ness climbed up a fire escape in an attempt to get on top of a roof, and was perched on a narrow brick window ledge when she slipped. She struck an air-conditioning unit before hitting the ground and immediately losing consciousness.

A bartender from the Rhinoceros held Ness' airway open until medics arrived on the scene, Minogue said.

Both Tara Ness and Minogue described the Sentinel High School graduate as a free and adventurous spirit with a flair for theatrics. She was also highly ambitious, however, and was planning to spend her next year of college abroad in Lyon, France.

Ness said her sister was majoring in French and wanted to pursue a career as a language translator or as a seamstress. She was not surprised that Ness met her death climbing a building, and said she had spent a recent sunny afternoon doing front flips off of rocks into the river.

"She was wonderful and silly and nothing was too ridiculous for her, but at the same time she was very graceful," said Tara Ness. "She had this really graceful poise, but then she would show up with a stoic face wearing a fake mustache."

Minogue tried calling Ness off of the roof to no avail, and said her friend's derring-do was in keeping with her capricious attitude, and insisted it was not fueled by alcohol.

"She would have done it if she was sober. She had had some to drink that night, but she was by no means drunk," Minogue said. "She was not stumbling, she was not slurring. She had not been drinking for a couple of hours and we had done a lot of dancing. I didn't get drunk that night and she was on my level. I don't think alcohol played a role in her decision-making whatsoever."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

 

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