Grief and anger in Chinatown after van kills 2 preschoolers

By Julie Shapiro

The blood is cleaned from the sidewalk on East Broadway where a van plowed into a row of preschoolers last week, but for the family members of the two children killed, the tragedy is far from over.

Four-year-old Hayley Ng, of Chinatown, and 3-year-old Diego Martinez, of Chelsea, died last Thursday after they were struck by a van left in reverse that mounted the curb. Hayley, Diego and their classmates at the Red Apple Child Development Center had just visited the Chatham Square Public Library and were returning to their preschool around the corner when the van hit them.

“She’s never been away from me,” said May Ng, Hayley’s mother, sobbing. “This is the first time I haven’t seen her in days… . It’s really hard without her.”

Hayley often came home from her bilingual preschool singing Chinese songs she learned, her mother recalled on Tuesday. She liked to dance and somehow picked up ballet moves even though she’d never taken a class. From the time she turned 2, Hayley made sure the TV at home was permanently set to the Disney Channel.

The weekend before she was killed, Hayley’s aunt, Wendy Cheung, took her to see “Hotel for Dogs,” the first movie Hayley ever saw in a theater. Hayley was a happy, polite child, Cheung said. Whenever Hayley sneezed, she would say, “God bless me.”

Diego was a month away from turning 4, and talked nonstop about the Power Ranger party he wanted, his mother, Wana Wu, told the Daily News. Diego and Hayley were friends and were holding hands in a chain with their classmates when the accident happened.

Ng and Hayley’s other relatives are angry that the Manhattan district attorney has not charged the driver of the van, Chao Fu, 52, of Brooklyn, who worked for China Chalet restaurant, at 47 Broadway. Some eyewitnesses said Chao was in the van when it hit the children, but police said he had gotten out to make a delivery and accidentally left the van in reverse, according to press reports.

“All I know is he hit my daughter and her classmate, and they’re both gone now,” Ng said. “The D.A. is not doing anything… . I’m very, very, very upset about it.”

Ng and other family members are encouraging people to call the D.A. and demand an investigation.

Alicia Maxey Greene, a D.A. spokesperson, said only, “We are looking into it.” She would not say whether pleas on the families’ behalf would change the D.A.’s approach.

Ng was also upset that the Red Apple Child Development Center, her daughter’s preschool, did not notify her or other parents about the accident. The first information Ng got was from an online news story at noon, half an hour after her only child was killed.

Hayley died at the scene of the accident, while Diego was transported to New York Downtown Hospital, where he died an hour later. Diego’s family was not notified until half an hour after he died, Wu, his mother, told the Daily News.

“My son died by himself in an emergency room,” Wu told the News. “[I was] not able to see my son take his last breath, not to know that he was in pain, not to be by my side — that’s the worst thing that can happen to a parent. All I want is justice.”

Red Apple Child Development Center declined to speak about the accident last week. At least 11 other people, many of them preschool students at the center, were injured, according to reports.

Last Friday, the day after the accident, a makeshift memorial took shape at the site, on East Broadway midway between Catherine and Market Sts.

Eleven bouquets of flowers stood propped against 39 East Broadway: white carnations, yellow roses, pink roses with baby’s breath. A Spider-Man figurine and a small pink guitar still in their packaging were nestled among the flowers. Atop the toys sat two unopened containers of strawberry yogurt.

Last Friday, cars still sped down East Broadway, workers still pushed handcarts loaded with produce along the sidewalk and shoppers still crowded around bins of merchandise, but the bustle quieted in front of the flower-strewn memorial. Passersby stopped, pointed and spoke in hushed tones, shaking their heads.

Valrie Brinkley, 49, a Chinatown resident, stood beside the memorial wiping her eyes.

“You don’t want to see this happen to kids,” she said quietly. “You don’t want to see this happen to nobody.”

Like many who visited the memorial, Brinkley did not know the children who were killed, but she wanted to see the place firsthand after hearing about what happened.

“People gotta be careful,” said Emilio Rodriguez, 38, who does maintenance work down the block from the accident. “Especially East Broadway, people drive crazy… . I know they say it’s an accident, but you gotta look.”

Rodriguez was nearby when the children were hit and said he started crying when he saw them lying on the pavement.

“I’ve never seen a thing like that before,” he said.

Jay Chen, 21, saw the van moving backward and heard an impact that sounded like an explosion when it hit the children. Then all he saw was blood, until a crowd of people raced up and obscured his view.

“It’s terrible,” Chen said, choking up, from behind the counter of Shing Star Wireless Co., at 39 East Broadway. “Every driver in New York drives dangerously. And in Chinatown there are so many [drivers].”

Like the families of the children killed, several people were angry that Chao, the driver, was not punished.

“He should go to jail,” said Katharine Montalvo, 39, who witnessed the accident and said Chao was behind the wheel. “The children’s families, what they’ve got to go through…,” she trailed off. “Accidents like that, you can’t turn around and say [you’re] O.K.”

The Red Apple Child Development Center was open Friday, during what should have been a festive time just before the Chinese New Year celebrations — a bulletin board in the lobby announced the New Year in shiny letters. Two young Asian women in the front office declined to comment on the accident, each shaking her head with tears in her eyes. The center released a statement expressing sorrow and separately announced a memorial fund in Hayley and Diego’s honor.

“There’s a somber kind of a feeling [in] the neighborhood,” said Victor Papa, president of the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council. “Even the traffic is different. The way people are crossing is different. The way people are holding the hands of their children is different. How could anybody forget?”

Papa said this was the worst tragedy he had seen in his 40 years as a neighborhood activist, because of the innocent nature of the outing to the library. The unsuspecting children were on the sidewalk and the adults who accompanied them would have had no reason to expect a car to barrel into their midst.

Borough President Scott Stringer and State Senator Daniel Squadron held a press conference in Chatham Square Friday, one day after the accident, to call for pedestrian-safety and traffic-management improvements in light of the deaths. Twenty-five people were killed and 1,149 injured in Chinatown traffic accidents between 1995 and 2005, more than in any other Manhattan zip code, Stringer said.

While Stringer said everyone was praying for those involved in Thursday’s accident, “We’ve had enough prayer,” he said. “We’ve had enough false promises… . There hasn’t been a new idea about Chinatown traffic for decades and we’re here to say this must stop.”

Stringer and Squadron unveiled 11 far-ranging demands, from traffic-calming measures and reconfigured sidewalks to community outreach and a study of traffic flow.

The press conference generated large attendance, with representatives from more than a dozen Chinatown organizations, but not everyone thought it was the right thing to do.

“It was just untimely,” said Papa, who wrote a letter of protest to Stringer and Squadron. “It was just incomprehensible to me that anyone would have a press conference and address anything other than the human element… . I thought the event called for a more somber, more circumspect, more contemplative response.”

Stringer has not replied to the letter, but Squadron spoke to Papa over the weekend and said he understood Papa’s point, Papa said.