It happened in the blink of an eye. An SUV, driven by a 22-year-old sorority president who may have been talking on her cell phone, sailed through a red light and plowed into two little girls. The older girl, 5-year-old Cheney Elementary student Anjelica Velez, died almost instantly. Her 2-year-old sister, Victoria, who was being pushed in a stroller by the girls' mother, died the next day.
"I didn't see the impact, `but` my daughter saw the impact," says witness Teresa Harrell. "I saw Anjelica sliding down the road in front of the SUV."
As one might expect, shock and disbelief were heavy in the east Orange County neighborhood. The school called in counselors to help Anjelica's classmates deal with her loss. Neighbors wondered why there wasn't a crossing guard when the accident happened, at 3:15 p.m. Oct. 27; as it turns out, school lets out early on Wednesday, and the crossing guard had gone home a few minutes before the accident. The Florida Highway Patrol was besieged with e-mails and phone calls demanding to know why the driver, Ashley Townsend, hadn't been arrested. (FHP spokeswoman Kim Miller says an investigation is ongoing, and criminal charges, though difficult to prove, may be forthcoming.)
But the locals also turned their anger on another, less likely, target: Orange County's traffic engineers, and more specifically, school-safety coordinator Kevin Miller. Within the last couple of years, residents say, traffic engineers moved the crosswalk used by Cheney kids to cross busy, dangerous Goldenrod Road about 100 yards north, to the Bates Road intersection. (The timeline differs; Kevin Miller says the move came in 2000, but several residents contacted for this story say it happened just two years ago, at the earliest.) That's where the Velez girls died. When the county moved the crosswalk, they removed the flashing light warning drivers they were near a school zone. The county never replaced the light.
"If they hadn't moved it these people would have maybe had a chance to live," says local activist Kim LaFleur, who toyed with and later abandoned a run for county commission earlier this year.
Residents begged the county not to move the crosswalk, LaFleur says, but county officials ignored them, saying the kids would be safer crossing at Bates Road.
The old crosswalk location offered a few important advantages. It was located several hundred feet away from an intersection that is well-known for red-light running, neighbors say; if someone ran a red light, the kids would have a chance to react. Also, it has an island halfway across the four-lane road to give kids a place to escape oncoming traffic, if need be. Most importantly, it had "school zone" lights that hung above Goldenrod Road to put drivers on notice that children might be nearby, even if the lights weren't blinking.
Taking that sign away "was an extreme mistake," says Harrell. If it's there, "you know there's a school crossing, you know you have to slow down."
Miller, who had the crosswalk moved, says the change was made because "the intersection was reconfigured." In other words, when the county decided to place a traffic light at Bates Road in 2000, they deemed it safer to move the school crosswalk there also, instead of having the kids cross a busy highway. And because the accident occurred after school let out early on a Wednesday, he points out, even if the school zone sign was there, it wouldn't have been flashing.
Miller redirects the blame to "someone not paying attention and running a red light," and also to lawmakers and the highway patrol for not being tougher: "I don't understand why it's OK to run over people and there's no recourse. I don't think that's right."
Kim Miller of the FHP replies that officers welcome heftier penalties, but notes that they will have to come from Tallahassee. In the meantime, the FHP is still investigating the crash to determine exactly what, if any, criminal penalties can be pursued.
Kevin Miller says that, despite LaFleur's and others' assertions, he hadn't heard any complaints before the accident. "After the fact, Kim LaFleur told me, 'I said this was going to happen,'" Miller says. "But I didn't hear that then." County commissioner Ted Edwards and school board member Joie Cadle say they, too, hadn't heard anything until last week.
In the wake of the girls' death, neighbors are trying to turn their grief into something positive. Within a week, a petition to bring back the flashing school zone signs has gained thousands of signatures.
But even if the county wanted to, Miller says, it's not that easy. Goldenrod is a state road, so moving the crosswalk would like the first time around entail getting the state's permission. And despite the neighborhood's grief, the state may well side with the belief that it's safer to cross at a traffic light, and that some tragedies simply may not be preventable.