Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Public safety

Police investigate death of 7-year-old girl felled by gate in Tampa

TAMPA — The 7-year-old girl wasn't moving when four men lifted a massive metal gate off her tiny body Wednesday.

Quincy Ruffin, 37, prayed loudly as he checked the girl's pulse.

It was faint. She appeared to have been knocked out, Ruffin's brother recalled.

Zhanaye Williams died at the hospital, Tampa police say.

The circumstances surrounding the incident remain a mystery. Detectives don't know why the gate fell on top of the little girl, causing her death. Late Wednesday afternoon, they were still investigating whether Zhanaye or any other children had been playing with it — or if someone had pulled it.

They interviewed witnesses: children also headed for the bus stop about 7:20 a.m.

Ronald Hendrie, 52, who lives closest to the gate, said he often saw children messing with it. He'd yell at them to stop.

The gate is the type that automatically opens and closes behind cars, perhaps triggered by a motion sensor.

But Hendrie never saw it work in his four years at the Brookside Apartments, near the intersection of 50th Street and Busch Boulevard.

It appeared broken, he said, hanging on by a single chain.

Tampa Code Enforcement went to the complex Wednesday. The Tampa Fire Marshal's Office is investigating.

Code Enforcement director Jake Slater said the only complaint his office has received about Brookside came March 30, when an anonymous caller reported that one of the gates was locked.

An investigator went to the complex the same day and found all the gates open, Slater said. They closed the case.

Zhanaye (pronounced "Zah-Nay") lived at the complex with her mother and four siblings and was in the second grade at Riverhills Elementary.

She played with neighboring children, often riding a bicycle. Her cousin, Nisha Nash, 19, said the little girl loved swimming and playing outside.

"She's very helpful — all those kids are," Nash said.

On Wednesday, crisis team members talked with Zhanaye's classmates, as well as other Riverhills students and staff affected by her death.

Counselors were encouraging students to express their emotions by writing cards to share with Zhanaye's family.

At Brookside Apartments, several residents fumed about the state of the complex. They pointed to slanted steps on staircases and a dilapidated fence around the pool.

Portions of that fence are held up by wire that resident Tamera Fryer, 40, says her mother installed.

"If the gate is broken, then they should have been fixing the gate," Fryer said.

Employees in the Brookside office declined to comment.

Wednesday afternoon, William Ruffin, 18, stood near the spot where the gate fell, remembering the events of that morning. He was one of the men who helped lift it off Zhanaye.

As others aided the girl, William Ruffin ran to the bus stop to ask the children if they knew the girl or where she lived.

"I had to get her mom," Ruffin said.

When he told Zhanaye's mother, she started crying — but she couldn't get near her daughter, Ruffin said. She stood back and appeared traumatized.

"She didn't break down until the ambulance took the girl away," Ruffin said.

Later, Ruffin learned more about the girl he had tried to save.

"I found out she was 7, and that's what hurt the most," Ruffin said. "Because life's too short."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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