Five kids died in the horrific Hutchinson Parkway crash, leaving unthinkable grief and unanswered questions
In Derby, Connecticut’s smallest city, with its mix of metropolitan bustle and quiet suburban charm, the Derby Mini Market on Anson Street is one of the closest things to a New York City bodega.
It was one of two spots where the Cross and Billips family liked to go to get their milk and bread, or drinks and snacks for the restless kids. The move from Brooklyn had taken some getting used to, and a convenience shop that felt like something from the old neighborhood probably helped a little.
But on this day, the day after five kids from their family were killed in a horrific car crash on the Hutchinson River Parkway, the small mart offered a brief oasis from the unthinkable grief and pain, a place to buy some convenient food, and some drinks to wash it down.
“I saw the mother on Monday,” a store clerk said. “She was so sad. She came here and bought the freezer stuff, because she said she couldn’t even cook that day. She came with the little kid. He had a bandage on his head. He was real quiet.”
The little kid was 9-year-old Abraham Billips, who, in the early morning on March 19, climbed out of a crushed and burning car where everybody died but him.
Cops said Abraham was in the rear cargo area of a small SUV that had veered off the Hutchinson River Parkway in Westchester County before it hit a boulder and a tree and burst into flames
Behind the wheel was Abraham’s cousin, 16-year-old Malik Smith, who had neither a driver’s license nor a learner’s permit. There were no adults in the car. Officials said he failed to negotiate a turn and veered off the road near an exit in Scarsdale.
“I asked her, ‘What happened?’” the store clerk said. “You know, ‘What happened?’
And the little one say, ‘I think he fell asleep.’”
“I don’t ask any more because she felt so bad,” the clerk said. ”She said she felt like she was in another world. She said she felt like that. She didn’t want to cook and she didn’t want to do nothing.”
The driver’s dad told CBS News he was aware his son was driving without even a learner’s permit. “I told him, his mother told him, his older brothers told him: Stop driving without a license, without a permit. Anything happens, you get pulled over, you get in trouble for these things. Stop doing this.”
Anthony Billips, father of the four young passengers killed, wrote what he called “the most painful post I ever had to write in my life,” saying that his family had “lost our precious kids in a fatal car accident.”
“The pain we are feeling words [can’t] even express, and we wouldn’t wish this to happen to anyone in this world,” he wrote on Facebook.
Cops said the driver and passengers Anthony Billips Jr., 17; Zahnyiah Cross, 12; Shawnell Cross 11, and Andrew Billips, 8 were killed when Malik failed to negotiate a curve while traveling north along the parkway in Scarsdale.
Relatives said Malik still lived in East New York, Brooklyn, but spent much of his time with relatives in their new home in Derby, which appeared to be their destination before Malik became distracted or fell asleep at the wheel.
‘They stuck together’
Sarita Vargas, who owns the nearby Sarita’s Deli and Grocery on Hawkins St. in Derby, said the family shopped there most days. She said the children bought Kisko freeze pops, sundaes and small sodas, and if one kid didn’t have enough money, the others shared what they had.
“They had each other’s back,” Vargas, 42, said. “They would walk in, ‘fix your book bag, help him, tie your sneaker,’ No fighting, no yelling at each other. None of that. Me and my son were amazed with these children when they came here. We were like, ‘Where did they come from? These little kids sit there and talk to you, look you in the eye. These kids were so smart. They stuck together as a unit. They moved as a unit. They were each other’s friends.”
Vargas said she had gotten to know all the victims, from the oldest child to the youngest.
They called Andrew, the 8-year-old, Peanut. She wasn’t sure why, but she thought the nickname was cute.
“He’s the one that they all looked after,” Vargas said. “They all stand here and wait for him to decide what he wants to get.”
She said everyone at the store thought Malik was the oldest because of “how he moved.” She said he was always in and out.
“He had that New York mentality,” she said.
But it was Anthony, the 17-year-old, who was really in charge, she said.
“The oldest, Anthony, was like the leader,” Vargas said. “Like you know, he was the parent. He made sure they were always good. Him and Zahnyiah. They all loved each other.”
Vargas said she had long talks with Anthony.
“He called me ‘Ma,” Vargas said. “He already had opened up to me, so he goes to me, “You know what? Imma call you Ma from now on. That OK?’ I said ‘Yeah, that’s OK.’”
She said they often talked about Anthony’s future.
“He had so many plans for his life,” Vargas said. “He wanted to do truck driving. To New York back and forth. His uncle drove and he said there was money in that.
Vargas said Anthony’s father worked hard to keep him out of trouble.
“His father would talk sense to him,” she said. “He would tell me, ‘Me and my dad had a good conversation today.’ He would tell me these things. He’s like, I’m gonna respect my dad and take his advice.
“His father would tell him, ’If you hang around with knuckleheads, you’re not gonna make it. You’re gonna get in the same trouble they’re getting into.’ His plan was to go back and live in New York because this life was so different for him. He knew that in New York there was work, there were jobs. It’s big.”
When she met Anthony’s parents, she said she felt like she already knew them.
“Very respectful,” Vargas said. “So when I finally met them I told them, ’Oh my God, you guys got great kids.’ He smiled. The mom and the father seemed perfectly fine. Normal people.”
Still, investigators want to know who gave Malik the keys to the rented vehicle, and the green light to drive it, officials said. Authorities did not rule out criminal charges against an adult if such charges are warranted, they said.
Under New York State law, drivers younger than 18 are prohibited from having more than one passenger unless the passengers are members of their immediate family or there is a passenger older than 21 in the vehicle.
In Connecticut, a 16-year-old is prohibited from driving with passengers under the age of 20 and with nonfamily members. Drivers younger than 18 also may not drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless it is for employment, school, religious activity or medical necessity.
Neighbors said they weren’t ready to point fingers at anybody. The wounds were still too fresh.
“That really messed me up,” said Tanisha Crook, 49, a mother of four who lives near the family. “I slept all day yesterday. I was literally drained. When it first happened I prayed for the family. It really touched me. As a mother, not only one, but five. That’s a lot. It’s crazy.”
She said her heart aches for the surviving child.
“He’s an angel,” Crook said. “He needs love. He needs all the love he can get. And help. For the days to come it’s not going to be easy.”