By Sue Dremann
A 6-year-old girl was killed Wednesday morning (Sept. 28), the second traffic fatality in less than three hours within a two-block area in East Palo Alto.
The Green Oaks Academy second-grader was walking to the school, which is on the Cesar Chavez campus, with her mother and two siblings when she was struck by a car in the crosswalk at Bay Road and Gloria Way, Officer Veronica Barries said.
The driver was longtime Costano Elementary School teacher and East Palo Alto resident Alisha Whiteparker, 49, Barries said. The girl's name has not been officially released, though several reports have identified her as Sioreli Torres Zamora.
The vehicle struck the girl at 8:06 a.m. while driving southbound on Bay Road, Barries said. The girl was about 5 or 6 feet into the crosswalk and was thrown several feet, according to residents living nearby. Barries said the girl suffered major injuries and died shortly thereafter on the scene.
Residents wept as the coroner and police investigated the scene. As the girl's body lay covered and protected from view by a circle of squad cars, her mother squatted on the sidewalk against a low wall. Family members offered her comfort.
Outside the police-tape barrier nearby, the driver also wept, comforted by residents who said she had grown up in the neighborhood.
"She's a good woman," Maggie McDuffy said, adding that she heard the accident just as she opened her door and saw the child thrown. The crosswalk is several feet from her home. Larry Arnold, who lives with McDuffy, said he came running outside.
"I heard the impact and I saw a shoe in the street. I didn't want to see any more. It was sickening," he said.
Barries said the accident did not appear to be criminal, and the grieving driver was sent home after questioning. She said she did not think the second incident was caused by traffic from the city's first fatality earlier that day, located just blocks away, but the investigation is ongoing.
But residents were furious because of ongoing traffic issues on the busy arterial street. Some residents said stop signs should be posted at the corner, which is only a block or two from the school. Families and mothers with small children frequent the intersection on their way to the school and to nearby St. Francis of Assisi Church, they said.
"This should be 15 mph. The kids, when they are this little can run out ahead of their parents. They don't know any better. All day long there are crazy drivers that don't care," McDuffy said.
Germaine Demecio Garner's arms encircled the driver, offering comfort as she wept.
"It wasn't her fault. Kids just bust out of nowhere. She's been here all her life. She was raised on this street. She's a respectful teacher. She's been at the school for years," he said.
Garner said he was biking when he heard the accident.
"I dropped my bike and came straight down here," he said.
The little girl's death was Garner's second tragedy of the day, he said.
At about 5:30 a.m., his friend, whom he declined to name but whom he met thorough a motorcycle club, was killed in a head-on collision just two blocks away with a driver who was fleeing police. San Mateo County coroner's officials have identified the motorcyclist as East Palo Alto resident Danny Lee Dixon, 50.
"I've lost a lot of people," but the death of the child was too much, Garner said, his hands shaking.
Police were investigating a call in the 400 block of Runnymede Street when the early morning motorcycle fatality occurred.
A resident saw a suspicious person in their yard, and officers spotted a gray SUV -- later determined to be a Land Rover -- driving with its lights off. The driver sped away as police pursued and drove eastbound about three blocks down University Avenue -- the wrong way into the westbound lane, police said.
The Land Rover struck the motorcycle head-on, killing Dixon near the intersection of Bay Road. Police took the driver, East Palo Alto resident Eric Banford, 46, into custody. Police were also questioning two passengers in the Land Rover. Officers from Palo Alto and Menlo Park were helping to secure the scene.
The East Palo Alto Police Department is conducting an administrative investigation on the officers involved in the pursuit, which is standard procedure in such incidents, Barries said.
At the time the girl was struck, police had blocked University from Kavanaugh to Runnymede streets and busy commute-hour traffic was being redirected down the side streets. Police had cordoned off part of Bay in both directions north and south of University by at least half a block and vehicles were making U-turns on Bay when they encountered the police tape, residents said.
Some residents along Bay were upset that police hadn't blocked the Gloria Way intersection where the girl was struck, two blocks north of the motorcycle crash, given the confusion and backup of vehicles mingling with children who were hurrying to school.
"To me, it had a lot to do with the first accident. They should've sent a crossing guard," Lucy Vasquez said. "They know there's a school right there. The police department should've been more involved -- that's what hurts me. There were cars backing up, and kids are trying to cross."
Barries said she had heard that some drivers were making U-turns, but other residents with whom she spoke at the scene said the traffic flow was not different from other days.
"By the driver's own admission, she didn't know the road was blocked off and was just doing her routine pattern of going to the school," Barries said.
Investigators were still unable to determine the cause of the second accident. Alcohol and speeding were not factors, she said. Whiteparker was possibly distracted, but that was still under investigation, she said. Whiteparker has not been arrested.
Vasquez said the child's death will have a direct impact on her family.
"I have a daughter just like her. My daughter goes to the same school. It's a little person they killed. That's why I'm crying. She's my daughter's friend. I didn't tell my daughter that her little friend got killed. It's going to be very hard," she said, as tears streamed down her cheeks.