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Nora Huapilla: Loss of dutiful elder sister leaves void in Pinellas Park family

Juan Huapilla, 16, holds a photo of Nora outside their home on Monday. He still wants to walk the same way to the bus to remember her.

CRISTINA SILVA | Times

Juan Huapilla, 16, holds a photo of Nora outside their home on Monday. He still wants to walk the same way to the bus to remember her.

PINELLAS PARK — On the days leading to Christmas Eve, Nora Huapilla would pass the hours alongside her mother, spreading the masa evenly over the corn husks and shredding the spicy chicken filling.

The house would fill with relatives, neighbors and friends, who would pass rosaries in prayer, fill their plates with homemade tamales and whack the pinata until it splintered, sending its sweet treats tumbling down.

As the oldest daughter, it fell to Nora to help prepare their home for the posada, the traditional Mexican celebration that honors Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay in Bethlehem.

But, this Christmas week, the crowds piling into the Huapilla home weren't there to celebrate.

Nora, 17, was killed Friday after she was struck by a car. The Pinellas Park High junior was running to catch the school bus and crossed against the light.

"She was like our second mother," said her brother Juan, 16, who witnessed the accident. "She was raised like a good girl."

• • •

Like so many mornings, Nora and Juan ran to the bus stop at 70th Avenue and 66th Street.

The driver was impatient, Juan said, and wouldn't wait.

Nora couldn't run as fast as Juan, and he easily darted ahead of her in the dark and rainy twilight.

The sounds of the crash made him turn back to the intersection.

He saw Nora's shoes on the ground, but he couldn't see her. The cards and gifts she had stayed up late to wrap and write for her friends were scattered across the wet asphalt.

Someone pointed to her, lying in the road. People were screaming that she was hit by a car.

He raced to her side. She was breathing quickly.

"Aqui, te van a venir a ayudar. Chiquita, respira despacito," he said.

Help is coming. Breathe slowly, little girl.

"I thought she could hear me," said Juan. "She started breathing normal again."

He thought she would be okay.

She died a few hours later at Bayfront Medical Center, the third Pinellas County student in five years who has been struck and killed near a school bus stop situated along a busy street.

Juan blamed the bus driver, who he said would often close the door on tardy students. Just a few weeks ago, Juan said, the driver left Nora behind after she tripped while running down the street, her school papers flying out onto the pavement.

In October, Nora's parents complained to the school district about the driver and the location of the bus stop.

Still, Juan doesn't want the route changed when school reopens after the holiday break.

"I kind of still want to walk that way to remember her," he said. "But I want the bus driver to say, 'Yes, I will give you time. I will be patient.' "

Superintendent Julie Janssen said Monday that she did not know enough details to respond to the family's charges about the bus driver.

A review will be done to "find out exactly what happened," she said.

Janssen came under fire for a comment she made Friday. She answered a question about whether the district could have foreseen such a tragedy by saying it was a parent's choice to send a child to an out-of-zone school.

Nora and Juan attend Pinellas Park High, but their zoned school is Dixie Hollins.

Tampa lawyer Steve Yerrid called Janssen's comment "repulsive."

"That was a clear inference, if not a direct assertion, that, 'We didn't do anything wrong, it's the parents' responsibility,' " said Yerrid, who represents the family of Rebecca McKinney, a Clearwater High junior who was killed in a similar 2004 accident.

Janssen said she was only trying to explain the district's policy.

"How do you blame anyone? This is a tragedy," she said.

"I just feel so badly for the family. It's just a terrible accident."

• • •

Nora hated missing the school bus. She would have to walk back home and beg her mother or neighbor for a ride.

Too many tardies meant Saturday detention, a punishment a bright student like Nora could not stomach.

She volunteered at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, her former alma mater, as a teacher's assistant, Juan said.

She brought tamales to her favorite teachers for the holidays.

She loved world history. She wanted to be a lawyer or a pediatrician.

She relished her role as caretaker of her four younger siblings, ages 2 to 16. She often asked her parents, "What can I do to help you?"

Sometimes, Nora would curl her waist-long black hair, put on her best outfits and take cell phone pictures of herself.

In public, she would wave her hand slowly, like a beauty queen.

Her friends would tell her, "You're so popular. Everybody says hi to you."

"Really?" she would say, her face lighting up.

Nora wore a purple mood ring with the word "friends." Her constant companions, Luz Salas and Talymarie Garica had the matching "best" and "forever" rings.

Juan would tease Nora to see if the ring's color would change.

"She was happy all the time," said Luz, 16, who talked to Nora on the phone every night.

The boys at school affectionately called Nora "Cholita," "Mexicanita," and "beaner." She was proud of her culture and welcomed the nicknames.

She lamented the fact that she didn't have a quinceañera, a traditional coming-of-age party for 15-year-old Latinas. To make up for it, she predicted her 18th party would be a major event.

She made Luz promise they would have a combined party this summer to celebrate their birthdays.

She talked about it all the time.

Times staff writers Ron Matus and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

Nora Huapilla: Loss of dutiful elder sister leaves void in Pinellas Park family 12/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:03am]
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