Friends, family mourn UM students from China who were struck by car

10/23/2013 6:57 AM

10/26/2013 6:55 AM

Those who knew and loved Ying Chen and Hao Liu – even strangers - gathered Friday night along the street where the two University of Miami students were fatally struck last week to honor their lives and seek answers about their deaths.

Family members, who traveled to Miami this week from China, sang, wept and comforted one another at the scene. At one point, female relatives sat on the sidewalk in front of photos of the graduate students and a collection of flowers, candles and fruit. They were surrounded by friends of Chen and Liu, residents of nearby apartments, community members and fellow Chinese students who have rallied to show support and help the family members with transportation, legal questions and other issues.

Chen, 27, of Beijing, and Liu, 26, had both just started pursuing doctorate degrees in electrical and chemical engineering at the university. Both lived in off-campus apartments in Pinecrest and were walking near their homes across Kendall Drive at Southwest 68th Court when a Porsche hit them after 8 p.m. Oct. 16.

Student Stephanie Song, 23, wept as she remembered Liu, her roommate of two months, as a humble person with a great singing voice who had already made many friends. They were from the same Chinese town of Harbin, she said.

“This whole accident is not fair for him,” she said. “We want people to know that two innocent people died and nothing happened. We are waiting for justice.”

The vigil was organized by Daniel Ma, one of the leaders of a Chinese community group at nearby Crossbridge Church. He didn’t know the students, but said their deaths had deeply concerned members of his group.

“Our primary goal is to honor who died and also to show love and condolence to the families,” he said.

During Friday’s gathering, the crowd swelled to roughly 100 people. Church members sang hymns as family members wailed and students hugged each other and lit candles.

“We’re so pleased that we can help shoulder the family’s pain,” said Kai Zang, a friend of Chen.

According to a police report, driver Milady Pequeno, 47, told investigators she did not see the pedestrians. Pequeno, who also lives in Pinecrest, had two passengers in the car — an elderly woman and young child — and police said there was no suspicion of drug or alcohol involvement.

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Pequeno said nothing before hanging up.

No charges have been filed, but police said they are still investigating.

“The investigation by no means is closed,” said Javier Baez, a Miami-Dade police spokesman. “We welcome anyone who witnessed the accident to come forward. We would love to speak to them.”

A woman at the vigil Friday night who said she witnessed the accident said police interviewed her after the night of the crash; she spoke to police again Friday night.

Zang, a UM law student, is helping the families communicate with police, lawyers and others involved in the case.

“All the families are upset,” he said. “We are trying to go through the legal process to find the truth. The family wants to know what really happened there.”

Zang said Chen was a top student who was well-liked and excelled at the Chinese guitar.

“She had a bright future,” he said.

On Tuesday, Chen’s family held a ritual at the site to commemorate the first seven days after her death. At that gathering, several people from the area showed up to express condolences.

“They saw the crime scene and ambulance and said they were sorry for the family,” Zang said. “So many people are helping us and trying their best. We appreciate that.”

The deaths have affected the Chinese population at UM, said Hongyang Wang, president of the school’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

“The people who know them are really mad, really emotional right now,” she said.

The school is planning a ceremony on campus Monday afternoon for the university community and family members.

“The entire University community is heartbroken at the loss,” University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala said in a statement. “Our Student Affairs staff has been working closely to offer support to their families, who have our deepest sympathies at this difficult time.”

Ma said Friday’s gathering is also meant to draw attention to safety concerns in the area; there is no crosswalk at the intersection where Chen and Liu died.

The issue has already made it onto the radar of village officials, according to news partner CBS4.

Pinecrest Councilman James McDonald told the television station that the village manager has contacted Miami-Dade County to ask that they study the intersection “with the mind to put in some kind of crosswalk, perhaps flashing lights when someone presses a button.”

“If they’re going to cross, the lights will flash and warn drivers that a pedestrian is in the crosswalk,” McDonald said.

Miami Herald news partner CBS4 contributed to this report.

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