Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Girls hit near Middleton High came from Honduras to find better life

TAMPA — Ever since sisters Victoria and Norma Velasquez-Cabrera came to the United States from their native Honduras with their mother last year, they worked hard in pursuit of their respective dreams.

Victoria, 14, wants to become a dentist. Norma, 15, wants to travel the country, seeing big cities and places like Disney World.

The sisters were learning English. They were studying hard at Middleton High School. They were making the best of life in their new home after their mother, Victoria Velasquez, sought to escape violence in their native country.

On Wednesday, she sat waiting in Tampa General Hospital. The girls were both badly injured Tuesday when they were hit by a car on their way to school.

"I don't understand why this happened to us," said their uncle, Mauricio Gutierrez. "The girls don't deserve this."

As Victoria underwent surgery for a broken arm, Norma lay unconscious, clinging to life.

"The doctors say there is nothing else they can do," Gutierrez said. "Her brain is not responding."

The teens were walking just north of Middleton High about 7:15 a.m. Tuesday when they tried to cross in the 2500 block of Hillsborough Avenue. It was still dark, with the sun yet to break the horizon, police said. They wore dark clothing and were not in a marked crosswalk.

When they stepped into the street, a car stopped in the middle of the three lanes to let them pass, police said. Another car approached in the far lane.

The driver of the second car, 17-year-old Deja Johnson, on her way to Hillsborough High School, didn't see the girls; the dim lighting and the other car blocked her view, police said.

As the family prayed for a miracle Wednesday, they lashed out in anger at authorities who said they don't anticipate filing charges in the crash. Police said a preliminary investigation shows the driver did nothing wrong.

"It's a tragic accident," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

Still, the family demanded further action to prevent similar tragedies.

"It's not a safe street." Gutierrez said. "How many more victims do we have to wait for?"

Four Middleton High students have been hit by cars in 2 ½ years, said principal Owen Young. That includes Shenika Davis, a 15-year-old who was killed in October 2011 as she, too, walked to Middleton outside a crosswalk in the darkness.

The crashes are unacceptable, Young said. So on Wednesday, every Middleton student attended a 30-minute pedestrian safety presentation.

The school invited Jason Jackman, from the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, to give his "Walk Wise" talk. The first group of freshmen and seniors noisily entered the school auditorium. They hushed when Young mentioned Tuesday's tragedy.

The tips seemed basic: Wear bright clothes, walk at crosswalks, be alert, look both ways — then look again.

Officials hope it makes a difference. Just one day after the two sisters were hit, Young said he saw students jaywalking across Hillsborough Avenue.

"I know you want to save time," he said, "but this is important."

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.

   
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