TAMPA — Days after a hit-and-run driver struck her daughter, Ana Hernandez-Diaz had to make a choice.
Asucena “Susie” Gomez-Hernandez had arrived at Tampa General Hospital on Jan. 31 with a head injury so severe that surgeons removed large portions of the 14-year-old girl’s skull to try to relieve the swelling, her family said. Despite the efforts, Susie was deemed medically brain dead last week.
Hernandez-Diaz decided to take her off life support and donate the girl’s organs.
“One of the most difficult situations that anybody could go through is the loss of a child,” Gil Sanchez, one of the family’s attorneys, said a news conference Thursday. “What’s even more painful is seeing your child there and the doctors telling you there’s nothing else they can do.”
Now, as they grieve, the family is pleading for help, calling on the county to make improvements at the intersection where Susie was struck, and waiting for justice for the driver accused of hitting her and driving away.
A freshman at Freedom High School, Susie was trying to cross 15th Street just south of 122nd Avenue about 7:15 p.m. that day when she was struck by a southbound Chevy SUV. The driver, 24-year-old Nakeeba Ryan, stopped, got out of the SUV and walked over to an area where she saw people tending to a person laying on the ground, according to court documents.
Ryan then moved the SUV to a nearby parking lot and “became overwhelmed,” a search warrant affidavit states. She got back in the SUV, left the scene without helping the girl or calling 911 and drove to her boyfriend’s house. She was arrested the next day and charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving serious injury and was released from jail after posting $7,500 bail.
After Susie died, the charge was upgraded to leaving the scene of a crash involving death, a first degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Ryan has not been re-arrested, but prosecutors filed a motion Tuesday asking a judge to increase the bail amount. Ryan’s arraignment is set for March 2.
At the time of the crash, she worked for the Department of Children and Families in a customer call center in Tampa dealing with inquiries about an economic self-sufficiency program, a spokeswoman said. She was hired by the department in February 2019 and immediately fired after her arrest.
At Thursday’s news conference at the Del Valle Mexican Grill on Fowler Avenue where she works as a cook, Hernandez-Diaz and her attorneys described the fallout from the crash and what they want to see happen now.
The family contends the county failed to make the intersection safe for pedestrians.
According to Sanchez, there have been about 18 accidents at or near that intersection, including a fatality last year. He noted the crosswalk paint on 122nd Avenue has faded almost completely away.
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“There are many people walking on that road, cars are flying and there isn’t adequate signals for the safety of the pedestrians,” Sanchez said. “If the county would have done their job the right way, which is to properly have the white zebra lines for pedestrians to cross, then Susie and everybody who walks through there has notice where they have to be walking.”
The family plans to file a lawsuit against Ryan and and is considering legal action against the county, Sanchez said.
A county spokesman did not immediately have a comment.
Ryan did not have bodily injury liability coverage, which is not required in Florida. The state Legislature should make that type of insurance mandatory, the family said.
“Anna calls on the legislators to do the right thing, especially those state reps and state senators here in the Tampa Bay area, to really push hard for that,” Sanchez said.
Along with funeral expenses, the family is facing medical costs for Hernandez-Diaz, a single mother who has cancer and needs surgery to remove a cyst.
“We cannot allow anything to happen to Ana, especially for the sake of the surviving sisters,” Sanchez said.
Hernandez-Diaz is also fighting to remain in the country, said Vivian Canals, an immigration attorney handling her case. Canals declined to provide details but said her client is not in removal proceedings.
A GoFundMe page has drawn more than $3,000 toward a $10,000 goal for funeral costs and other expenses.
A native of the Mexican state of Chiapas, Hernandez-Diaz grew up poor and came to the United State for a better life for her family, she said Thursday, speaking in her native language of Tzotzil and in Spanish. Her daughters Erika, 13, and Griselda, 15, sat at the table next to her.
Through tears, Hernandez-Diaz described her daughter as soft-spoken and kind, a hard worker and a motivated student. She said she was grateful for the support of her friends, family, attorneys and the community.
The mother urged parents to watch over their children.
“Please protect them because it is so painful what I am going through,” she said. “I do not wish this upon anyone.”