Kindergartner Killed by Truck

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday February 27, 2009 - 05:32:00 PM
Berkeley police talk with the driver of a construction truck that struck and killed a LeConte Elementary School student at the intersection of Derby and  
                            Warring streets Friday afternoon. The scene was preserved as evidence under the pop-up tent at left.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Berkeley police talk with the driver of a construction truck that struck and killed a LeConte Elementary School student at the intersection of Derby and Warring streets Friday afternoon. The scene was preserved as evidence under the pop-up tent at left.

A LeConte Elementary School kindergartner was struck and killed Friday afternoon by a construction truck at Warring and Derby streets in Berkeley. 

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, a spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, said Berkeley police received a 911 call at 1:45 p.m. reporting that a young child had been hit by a truck near the Clark Kerr Campus, a residential complex located about six blocks southeast of the UC Berkeley campus. 

According to Kusmiss, police officers arrived on the scene to find a neighbor performing CPR on 5-year-old Zachary Cruz. Berkeley Fire Department later pronounced the boy dead at the scene, Kusmiss said. 

Though the parents were notified as quickly as possible, the child's identity was withheld until extended family could be contacted. The Alameda County coroner's office released the boy's name Saturday. 

Police enclosed the boy's body inside a pop-up tent, a protocol devised, Kusmiss explained, as a method of preserving evidence when a victim is pronounced dead at the scene. 

Kusmiss said the boy was walking southbound on Warring and that the driver might have made an eastbound turn on Derby, stopping when he realized he had struck the child. 

“The driver shared what his path was,” she said, adding that he had cooperated with police officers and that no drugs or alcohol were involved in the accident. 

“We are trying to re-evaluate the witness statements,” Kusmiss said, adding that so far 15 witnesses had come forward to testify, including other children present at the time who were attending a nearby after-school program. 

Other witnesses included residents of the Clark Kerr Campus who were able to see the last part of the accident from their apartment balconies, and several women who said they saw the truck but not the collision. 

“We have a couple of different accounts but it’s slightly early to announce anything,” Kusmiss said. “The officers are interviewing the students.” 

Officers from the Berkeley Police Department’s Fatal Accident Investigation Team (FAIT), who have undergone extensive training to deal with collision incidents, were at the scene investigating the accident along with homicide detectives. 

Kusmiss said at 4 p.m. that the body of the child would remain at the scene for at least two hours. 

Officials from both Berkeley Unified School District and UC Berkeley—including district Assistant Superintendent Neil Smith, LeConte Principal Cheryl Wilson and UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof—visited the scene of the accident in the afternoon. 

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan, who arrived at the scene immediately after he heard the news, said Cruz was crossing the intersection at Derby and Warring on his way to a K-2 after-school program. 

Students from LeConte Elementary School, located at 2241 Russell St. in South Berkeley, are taken by school bus to Emerson Elementary School where they are met by after-school program teachers who escort them the remaining block to the Clark Kerr Campus.  

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof confirmed that Cruz, the son of a UC Berkeley graduate student, was with teachers and students from the after-school program when the accident occurred. 

Mogulof said the staff at the after-school program was really distraught about the incident and that university officials, including counseling staff, were at the scene to offer support and assistance to the parents. 

“Our community is deeply saddened and shaken by this loss,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in a statement late Friday evening. “The Berkeley community sends our thoughts and prayers to the parents, family members, and others affected by this tragic accident.” 

Around 2:30 p.m., UC Berkeley students and individuals who lived or worked in the neighborhood started to crowd near Derby and Piedmont Avenue, where police had cordoned the area off with yellow crime scene tape. 

Two college students from the Clark Kerr Campus who did not want want their names published complained that Derby and Warring intersection, which is in a residential neighborhood and gets a lot of traffic from the Caldecott Tunnel, is a dangerous one, especially considering the number of small children in the area.  

The driver of the 2.5-ton contractor-style truck was escorted into a police vehicle by two Berkeley police officers around 3:30 p.m.  

In a statement sent out by the Berkeley Unified School District just after midnight Friday, Coplan said the entire school district was “grieving over the loss of the 5-year-old LeConte student. Any loss of life is a tragedy, but the loss of a kindergarten child is so hard to accept,” he wrote, adding that “his teacher Jeannie Gee, his classmates, and his family knew him in a way that none of us will ever be able to experience.” 

Principal Cheryl Wilson wrote to LeConte parents, “This is one of the most difficult letters I have had to write." After breaking the news of the death to the LeConte community, she wrote that, with assistance from Berkeley Mental Health, she would visit every LeConte classroom Monday to “talk to all the children, answer their questions, and provide support.” 

Friday’s incident is the second traffic incident in less than a month involving a Berkeley kindergartner. On Jan. 30, a 6-year-old Malcolm X Elementary School student was hit by a Toyota 4 Runner at the intersection of Ellis Street and Ashby Avenue when she darted into the crosswalk after hearing the school bell ring. The girl, who underwent surgery for a broken clavicle and fractured skull, has recovered from her injuries and will return to school Monday. 

The family has put up a website in Zachary's honor, www.zacharymichaelcruz.com, with a soundtrack consisting of his favorite song, The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love." Visitors to the site can post comments and donate money to help defray funeral costs.