A 16-year-old driver killed in a one-vehicle crash that also took the lives of four young relatives did not have a driver’s license or permit and may have fallen asleep or become distracted before the SUV veered off a New York parkway, officials said Monday.
The car continued straight at a curve on the highway and struck a boulder and then a tree at 12:20 a.m. Sunday, Westchester County Executive George Latimer said at a news conference. Speed does not appear to have been a factor, he said.
“The crash cost the lives of five young people. And that is a tragedy no matter what the details are,” Latimer said. “It was a horrific accident site.”
The victims — three boys and two girls — were identified Monday as Malik Smith, the 16-year-old driver; Anthony Billips Jr., 17; Zahnyiah Cross, 12; Shawnell Cross, 11; and Andrew Billips, 8. They included two sets of siblings, Latimer said.
A 9-year-old boy, the sixth person in the SUV, was the only survivor. Police said he apparently was riding in the rear cargo area of the 2021 Nissan Rogue and escaped out of a rear broken window with help from a Westchester County police officer who found the vehicle in flames and tried unsuccessfully to put out the fire. The boy was taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.
Police have not yet interviewed him in depth.
“He’s just seen five members of his family die. This has got to be an impossible situation for him as a young boy. So the kind of questions that you or I would want to ask him to know these things probably isn’t appropriate until things have been stabilized,” Latimer said.
The SUV had been rented to a relative. Authorities were looking into how the driver had access to the car. If he’d had a driver’s permit, Latimer said, the teen still would not have been able to drive legally at night and would also have needed to have an adult in the vehicle with him, under New York law.
“We’re less concerned at this point about who to blame, but to understand exactly what happened,” Latimer said.
County Public Safety Commissioner Terrance Raynor said the investigation is not “criminal in nature.” However, he said if something criminal is discovered “as things evolve,” the district attorney’s office would get involved with the case.
“As you can imagine, this family is very distraught over the incident and we have had some conversations. However, there’s a lot of follow up conversations to be had with the family. So at this point, I can say that they’ve been cooperative with respect to the questions we’ve asked. However, there is a lot more to go into this investigation,” Raynor said.
A GoFundMe fundraising site was set up by Da’Shawna Cross, who identified herself as one of the grieving parents, “to help bury our children we lost.” The post said: “We as parents lost 5 of our children in a very tragic accident and need help deeply … to put our babies to rest.”
Family members and friends on Facebook wrote of being devastated by the tragedy.
The children may have been driving from New Jersey to Derby, Connecticut, where they are believed to have recently moved, when they crashed in Scarsdale, New York, Latimer said. The crash occurred on the Hutchinson River Parkway, which is a limited access roadway that’s more narrow and winding than a typical interstate highway. The region’s parkways were built in the 1920s and 1930s.
On Sunday, Matt Conway, the superintendent of schools in Derby, said that he learned the children had recently moved to the area from New York but had not enrolled in the district. Conway said he reached out to a father on Sunday and offered to provide him information about available support in the community for him and his family.
Story by Susan Haigh