UPPER WEST SIDE, New York (PIX11) - After an SUV being pursued by police crashed into and killed a four year-old girl, the teenage driver is under arrest for manslaughter, and a community is in mourning while it questions whether or not the NYPD is responsible for the tragedy.
Ariel Russo was the preschooler who died from injuries she sustained after a black 2000 Nissan Frontier rammed into her and her grandmother as they stood on the northwest corner of the intersection of 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue around 8:15 Tuesday morning.
According to police, the SUV was driven by Franklin Reyes, 17. Investigators confirm that, prior to his manslaughter arrest, Reyes had no criminal record. He had been stopped by cops eight blocks south of the crash, minutes before it happened. Officers pulled Reyes over for reckless driving, and as the cops walked up to the SUV to question the teen, he sped off.
An eyewitness, who gave her name only as Marie, described what happened next.
“[The sounds of] sirens around here aren’t that uncommon,” she said while standing with her toddler daughter at the 97th Street and Amsterdam intersection. ”But to be as loud, and as many as there were, it drew our attention. I noticed. We saw the [SUV] go through the intersection, and hit the grandma and the little girl.
“The [SUV driver] tried to get out and run, and there were two people there who held him down so that the cops could run over and grab him. He was running, like there were police chasing him.”
She said it was clear that a large police pursuit led to the fatal crash. After the teen driver’s SUV hit the grandmother and girl, it pinned them against the wall of Ozen restaurant, in front of which the two had been standing. The driver backed up, and smashed into another car before trying unsuccessfully to flee on foot from police.
Steven Davis lives in an apartment over Ozen restaurant. Davis has had EMT training, and ran down immediately to help the little girl.
“She looked horrible,” he said. ”She had blood coming out of her nose.”
However, he told PIX11 News, Ariel looked like she was going to pull through the ordeal. ”She was breathing and she had a pulse,” Davis said. At one point, a minute or so after the girl was hit and pinned, she took a long, dramatic breath, which Davis and other people on the scene thought may have indicated that Ariel was dead. But she kept breathing.
“A lot of us thought she was going to pass,” Davis said. ”But then her breathing. It started again. She didn’t need CPR. At least from what I could see.”
He said that she was still alive when the ambulance took her away. However, Ariel Russo was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital minutes later. Her grandmother is being treated there now, and is in stable condition. About a dozen relatives were on hand at the hospital as well, mourning and comforting one another. They told PIX11 News that they did not want to make any comment, but they did provide a photo of the girl, in which a bright smile glows from her cherubic face, which looks out under long, thick, deep black hair.
The crash scene is across the street from Holy Name School, a Catholic school to which dozens of children were arriving at the time of the crash. At 5:00 Tuesday evening, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, other elected officials and a priest from the church that runs the school led students in a prayer vigil on the corner, as the community tried to sort out and understand what had happened.
“If it was just a traffic pursuit,” said Marie, the eyewitness, “for him to be fleeing, it was senseless. It didn’t have to happen.”
However, she did not place responsibility for the fatal collision on the NYPD. She said that, instead, it was the fault of the SUV driver, identified by police as Franklin Reyes. He is now in the custody of police, who said he was operating what appeared to be his family’s vehicle without a license.
“No one could control what he did,” Marie said. ”It was his choice to try and get away from the cops. It was his choice to try and run. It was his choice. I think cops were doing their job.”
Steven Davis, the other eyewitness, said that cops were doing more than just their jobs at the scene. ”They were very angry,” he told PIX11 News. ”They were very sad. I saw a couple of them crying.”