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Family 'Devastated' by I-25 Tragedy

By Martin Salazar
Journal Northern Bureau
    LAS VEGAS, N.M.— Theirs was the all-American family.
    Paul Gonzales, 36, was an accountant who worked at his parents' home health care agency and volunteered his time as a coach for the Young American Basketball League.
    His wife, Renee Collins Gonzales, 39, was a caring and cheerful nurse for the West Las Vegas school district during the day. She also moonlighted in the Alta Vista Regional Hospital emergency department.

Dana Papst
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  •     Their four daughters were outgoing, did well in school and loved sports.
        The family spent its last day together Saturday at a soccer tournament in Bernalillo, where Selena Gonzales, 10, and Jacqueline Gonzales, 11, played. They took Amor, their chihuahua puppy, along for the ride.
        Before heading home to Las Vegas, they stopped in Santa Fe for some Chinese food and shopping at Santa Fe Place, formerly Villa Linda Mall.
        Then, as they were beginning their roughly 60-mile trek home, their seemingly perfect lives were shattered by a man, driving in the wrong lanes of I-25, with an open container of Bud Lite in the cab of his pickup. His pickup struck the family's minivan, and Gonzales, Collins Gonzales, Selena Gonzales, Jacqueline Gonzales and Alicia Garcia, Gonzales' 17-year-old stepdaughter, died at the scene.
        Alicia's sister Arissa Garcia, 15, survived and was transported to St. Vincent Regional Medical Center with broken bones. Amor, the family's puppy, also survived.
    Family grieves
        "I can't even understand how this could happen," said Donna Collins, Renee Collins Gonzales' aunt. "This family is devastated ... We can't even fathom what we're going to go through in the days to come. One day playing soccer, next day gone."
        The man who was driving the wrong way on I-25 and crashed into the family died early Sunday at an Albuquerque hospital.
        Donna Collins said that, if she had gotten a chance to speak to him, "I would tell him that he has taken some angels from this earth . .. I wish he could see their pictures so they could be burned in his mind, so he can see what he's done."
        Members of the Gonzales and Collins families flocked to Santa Fe on Saturday night after they were notified of the crash. Gary Collins, Collins Gonzales' uncle, spent part of his Sunday morning surveying the place where five members of his family died. Although most of the wreckage had been removed, parts of the vehicles remained in the median.
        A bouquet of red roses marked the spot, along with a soccer ball.
        "I almost dropped to my knees," Gary Collins said.
        He said Arissa was in a lot of pain. "She's real angry right now," he said. "The whole family's in shock down at the hospital right now."
    Town mourns
        Many in the northern New Mexico town of Las Vegas were devastated by the news.
        "A family together, doing the right thing, died in a tragic, avoidable accident," Las Vegas Mayor Henry Sanchez said. "The city of Las Vegas is in mourning, and all our prayers go out to the family. We will do anything to help in any way we can."
        Las Vegas Councilor Louie Trujillo said "(Collins Gonzales) was always a joy to be around. She always had a smile. She was just a very, very nice person."
        He said Gonzales and his family were hard working. Gonzales' parents operate Alternative Home Health Care Agency in Las Vegas.
        Frank Casey, a former special needs aide who, during his tenure at the West Las Vegas school district, worked with Collins Gonzales, said she cared about children and sacrificed a bigger paycheck for the opportunity to help them.
        "She was an angel as far as helping those kids," he said. She always warned students not to drink and drive.
        Caroline Lopez, a former teacher for West Las Vegas schools, said Collins Gonzales was humble and always helped everyone.
        "She was very close to her mother and her father," she said. "I just can't believe it."
    Passion for sports
        Mark Loera, director of the Las Vegas recreation center, said Gonzales was passionate and always willing to donate uniforms and equipment for children without asking for anything in return.
        This past year, Loera said, the Young American Basketball League was short of coaches for the girls teams, and Loera asked Gonzales if he would coach.
        Though he had never coached basketball, Gonzales agreed to do it, and he was looking forward to returning this year, Loera said.
        "He was a passionate person to begin with," he said. "He never raised his voice. He never yelled at the kids."
        Alicia was a senior at West Las Vegas High School. Her surviving sister, Arissa, attends the same school.
        Jacqueline and Selena both went to Union Elementary School. Jacqueline was in the fifth grade, while Selena was in the fourth. Their soccer team was called the Futures.
        Gary Collins said the four girls were outgoing. He said Jacqueline, whom family members called Jackie, could be "a little rascal."
        "When she was younger, she called me up and said, 'Uncle, my mom and dad left me all alone, and I need a ride.' And she said, 'Can you stop for ice cream and can you bring Tyson (a puppy) over?' '' When Gary Collins got there with the ice cream and the puppy, everyone but Jacqueline was still in bed.
        Selena turned 10 on Friday, friends and family members said. Gary Collins said she never got the chance to open the gift her grandmother Cathy Collins bought her.
        "They have her present in the car," he said.

    E-MAIL writer Martin Salazar