Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Las Vegas Mourns Family Lost in Crash
By Martin Salazar
Copyright © 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Northern Bureau
LAS VEGAS, N.M. The impact of Saturday night's horrific crash that claimed the lives of five family members is perhaps best measured by the reaction of those left behind.
Like the sobbing friends huddled together inside Gillie Lopez Gymnasium grieving their 17-year-old classmate who won't get to graduate in May with the other seniors at West Las Vegas High School.
Or the principal trying to explain to about 1,000 middle and high school students on Monday morning how a severely drunken man could get behind the wheel of his truck and plow into an innocent family's minivan, killing all but one of them.
While the entire community of Las Vegas is grieving, the tragedy hit the West Las Vegas school district particularly hard. Renee Collins Gonzales, 39, was the district's school nurse and worked out of the middle school.
Man Who Killed Family Was Apparently 'Hammered' on Flight to ABQ, Passengers Say nov. 14 Family 'Devastated' by I-25 Tragedy nov. 13 Driver Had 5 DWI Arrests; Crash Claimed His Life, 5 Others nov. 13
Jacqueline Gonzales, 11, and Selena Gonzales, 10, attended the school district's Union Elementary School. Alicia Garcia was a senior at the high school. And the sole survivor of the crash, Arissa Garcia, 15, is a sophomore at the high school.
Also killed in the crash was Collins Gonzales' husband, Paul Gonzales, 36, who was an accountant with a home health care agency.
The man who caused the crash, Dana Papst, had five previous drunken-driving arrests, and his blood-alcohol content following Saturday's fatal collision was 0.32 percent, four times the state's presumed level of intoxication, authorities have said. Papst died the day after the accident.
West Las Vegas High School Principal Gene Parson said talking to students about the crash was the hardest thing he's ever done as an educator. But he seized the opportunity to plead with students, faculty and staff not to get behind the wheel of a vehicle after drinking. He also begged them to do the right thing and report anyone they see getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.
"Please, make that commitment in your hearts right now," Parson said at a joint assembly of the district's middle and high school students. He said the girls killed had planned to go to college and have families of their own. That was taken away by someone who decided to drink and drive, he said.
"What a senseless and selfish act," Parson said.
Many students and employees sobbed throughout the assembly, especially when Parson described the crash.
"Arissa was asleep, and all she remembers is her mom, her mom just screaming out," Parson said. "The truck was coming right at them and just in an instant killed five people."
He said he had spoken to a family member and was told that Arissa was up and walking and could be going home today.
Letter to a friend
Heather Santillanes, a close friend of Alicia's, sobbed as she read a letter to her late friend, recounting the good times they had shared at a birthday party and at prom.
"I'll never forget you," she said.
On the gym floor were several large pieces of yellow paper. Students scrawled messages to the victims.
"I love and miss you very much and wish this would not have happened to you," one person wrote.
"We will miss you. Watch over all of us, we love you," wrote another.
Jane Lopez, assistant principal at the middle school, tried to make sense of the tragedy.
"God had a reason why he needed this family in heaven ..." she told students. "Remember how precious life is. Live in the moment with gratitude."
Lopez called Collins Gonzales a friend. She said the first thing she did when she got to school Monday was place a wreath containing pink and white silk roses on Collins Gonzales' office door. A bouquet of fresh roses sat atop the school nurse's desk. Less than a mile away at Paul Gonzales' office, someone had placed a bouquet of flowers near the front door.
"There's a lot of sadness here in our community," Parson said. Grief counselors were made available for students throughout the day.
At Union Elementary School, Principal Manuel Lucero said the first two hours of the morning were the toughest as students were told about their classmates' deaths.
"Jacqueline was more of an extrovert, real happy go lucky ... always outspoken and giddy," Lucero said. He said Selena was quiet and more serious.
Ralph Gonzales, Paul Gonzales' father, said they were just trying to get the family together. Funeral services were pending Monday.
"He was the best," Ralph Gonzales said of his son. "Anyone that met him liked him."
Friends of Collins Gonzales called her the perfect mother.
She kept a pencil drawing of roses on a wall inside her office at the middle school. The drawing contained a message from Jacqueline Gonzales: "I will always love you."
On the shelf above Collins Gonzales' desk sits a little brown teddy bear next to the photos of three of her four daughters. Selena's photo hadn't quite made it into the fourth frame.