Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The Cleveland Middle School carnival was about to start Thursday evening when Eliza “Justine” Almuina and one of her best friends, both 12 years old, dashed across Louisiana NE on their way back from Smith’s grocery store, where they had gone for a snack.
The weather was warm and they had one day of class left before spring break, said Rebecca Estrada, the other girl’s mother.
“They both ran at the same time and Hailie made it across and Eliza didn’t,” she said, tearing up. “She said, ‘I just turned around and she was gone.’ ”
The sixth-graders and inseparable friends had been heading back to the school, using a crosswalk at Natalie NE, when an SUV struck Eliza. She was taken to University of New Mexico Hospital where she died just after midnight.
Officer Simon Drobik, a spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department, said the motor unit investigated the crash and determined it was a “tragic accident.” The driver, a 76-year-old man, has not been charged.
Drobik said the crash occurred after school hours when the two girls paused in the median and a vehicle heading south from Montgomery NE in the left lane stopped to let them cross. The driver of a 2015 GMC SUV in the right lane didn’t see the girls and continued on through the crosswalk, hitting Eliza after she passed the stopped car, he said.
Then, the driver over-corrected and drove into a fence in the median.
“It was after hours, so no flashing lights, no crossing guards, there was not an expectation that someone would be in that school zone at 5 o’clock,” Drobik said, calling it a “tragic turn of events.”
A friend of Eliza’s family said Friday that the girl’s family is devastated and trying hard to process everything that has happened. They requested privacy.
Rebecca Estrada said Hailie called her as soon as the crash occurred and she rushed to the scene, calling Eliza’s mother on the way.
“I have no words,” Estrada said. “It’s the worst fear you can ever think of.”
Estrada and her daughter joined nearly 30 students outside the middle school Friday afternoon to place flowers, balloons and pictures on the fence.
Students, many with hearts or Eliza’s name painted on their cheeks and arms, cried and hugged each other as they remembered their friend and classmate. The school principal called her “a shining star” in a letter to parents.
Two APD officers were stationed at the intersection until after the mourning students left, using radar guns to check the speed of passing vehicles.
Cleveland student Alexia McGinty and her mother, Stephanie, opted to skip school Friday and spent the day being together before stopping by the campus to mourn.
Alexia said she and Eliza weren’t in the same classes but would hang out at lunch together or after school, watching basketball, joking around and taking selfies.
“We can accept sometime that she is gone,” Alexia said. “But I know we will always embrace her.”
McGinty said she and her daughter had been up late the night before after spending time at the hospital with about 15 other students to be with Eliza and her family.
After they had gone home, she said, Eliza’s mother texted her in the middle of the night to let her know she was gone.
“I just can’t imagine what her parents are going through,” McGinty said. “I don’t think there are any words or anything that can be done to give them a peace. No parent should ever have to go through this or have to bury their children.”