The 2021 Nissan Rogue SUV driven by Malik Smith, 16, was driving “at normal speed” at 12:20 a.m. Sunday on the Hutchinson River Parkway, Westchester County Executive George Latimer said at a news conference. However, just past the Mamaroneck Road overpass, the SUV, which was rented, “continued in a straight line [and] hit a boulder and a tree head-on,” according to Latimer. The crash also set the SUV on fire.
The impact killed five of the six people on board. Smith, the driver, died from blunt force trauma, according to an autopsy. Investigators found the other deaths were from the same cause.
Investigators have concluded that Smith had either been distracted while driving or had fallen asleep, Latimer said. He’d been driving from somewhere outside of Westchester County, which would have meant the vehicle had gone at least 10 miles, said Latimer. The group may have driven from a family event or from a mall in either New Jersey or New York, according to investigators.
Photos of the children were posted on a GoFundMe page, which was set up by their relatives, WPIX confirmed. Westchester authorities released the victims’ identities on Monday morning. In addition to Smith, the victims were identified as Anthony Billips Jr., 17, Zahnyiah Cross, 12, Shawnell Cross, 11, and Andrew Billips, who was just 8 years old.
The children who perished belonged to two sets of siblings, according to Latimer. Another of the children from the sibling groups was a 9-year-old boy, who’d been seated in the cargo area of the SUV in the back when the tragedy happened.
The boy survived the crash with lacerations and bruises but no life-threatening injuries, according to Terrance Raynor, the Westchester County public safety commissioner.
“The rear window had been shattered,” Raynor explained. “It’s an SUV, so it has a kind of lift gate window. He made his way out the window.”
A good Samaritan who’d been driving near the SUV when it crashed let the boy come into their car and phone his mother, Latimer said.
The county executive added that the boy, the only surviving witness, will be valuable to the investigation, but he has not been interviewed yet because of the sensitivity of the situation and the subject.
“This is an extremely traumatic moment,” Latimer said on Monday. “Recuperation of the young boy is the immediate challenge.”
“He’s just seen five members of his family die,” Latimer continued. “So the kinds of questions you or I would want to ask him aren’t appropriate at this time, until things have been stabilized.”
Those questions, the county executive said, will eventually need to be asked, Latimer said.
“There certainly could be a criminal pursuit of some of the actions here,” he said.
It’s not clear at this point how Smith had obtained the car. Also, Smith did not have a driver’s permit. Even if he’d had one, it is illegal for anyone under 18 years of age to drive after dark in the states where the SUV was traveling.
Latimer and Raynor said the families involved had recently moved to Derby, Connecticut, from New York, and Smith had been enrolled at a high school in Brooklyn at the time of the crash.
At this point, Latimer said, officials are “less interested in who to blame” than in ensuring that the victims’ loved ones can mourn in peace.
“The family is very distraught,” he said.