Authorities said on Monday that a teenage driver without a license or learner’s license was distracted or fell asleep at the wheel of an SUV that crashed and caught fire on New York’s Hutchinson River Boulevard, killing him and four underage relatives.
Authorities said there was no supervising adult in a Connecticut-bound Nissan Rogue that struck a boulder, crashed into a tree and caught fire on a Westchester County boulevard just after midnight Sunday.
Westchester County Executive George Latimer said the driver was having trouble negotiating the curve.
“We don’t believe speed was the cause of this crash,” Latimer told reporters. “This is a road that curves quite a lot. He turns left, then goes down. The driver did not turn off the roadway, but continued to move in a straight line.
The crash killed driver Malik Smith, 16, and passengers Anthony Billips, 17, Zania Cross, 12, Shonell Cross, 11, and Andrew Billips, 8.
Only a 9-year-old boy, riding in the back of the SUV’s cargo area, survived, officials said. He escaped from the back of the car through broken rear door glass and was taken to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla with non-life threatening injuries.
Latimer knows the way well.
“This is a road that I am personally familiar with,” he said. “In fact, I drove down the same road two hours before the accident.”
There is no guardrail to the right of the road.
“This requires the driver to stay alert and move with changing roadways,” Latimer said, adding that the speed limit on the boulevard is 55 mph.
Officials said the driver did not have a driver’s license or student’s license in Connecticut or New York.
Under New York State law, drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from carrying more than one passenger, unless the passengers are members of their immediate family or there is a passenger over the age of 21 in the vehicle.
In Connecticut, a 16-year-old is prohibited from driving with passengers under the age of 20 and non-family members. Drivers under the age of 18 are also not allowed to drive between 11 pm and 5 am, except for work, school, religious activities, or medical reasons.
The driver’s father said he knew his namesake son was driving even without a driver’s license.
“Yes, there was,” Malik Smith told CBS News. “I told him, his mother told him, his older brothers told him: stop driving without a license, without a license. Whatever happens, you will be stopped, you will be in trouble for these things. Stop doing it.”
Distraught father Anthony Billips wrote what he called “the most painful post I’ve ever had to write in my life,” saying that his family “lost our precious children in a fatal car crash.”
“The pain we feel with words [can’t] even express and we wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone in this world,” he wrote on Facebook.
The Westchester County Police Accident Investigation Team and detectives from the County’s General Investigations Unit investigate the crash. It is not known if the victims were wearing seat belts. Officials said it was difficult to determine much about seat belts due to fire damage.
“It was a terrible accident,” Latimer said. “It was the scene of a terrible accident.”
Police said the group was at the mall or at a family gathering and was on their way to their homes in Connecticut.
Latimer said the car was rented.
“The car was rented by a relative,” he explained. “It’s still being investigated how Malik Smith got access to it.”
According to Latimer, a motorist witnessed the accident and stopped to offer help. Police said the motorist allowed the surviving child to get into his car and call his family.
The district police officer was the first to arrive at the scene, but he could not put out the flames with a fire extinguisher. The fire was put out by local firefighters who arrived some time later.
Latimer said the driver and all passengers died from blunt force trauma.
Officials said all five children were from Connecticut and had just moved into the local community. School officials in Derby, Connecticut, said boys and girls have yet to enroll in their new schools.
“It’s unimaginable,” said Matt Conway, principal at the Derby school. “Having to arrange the funeral of your five children now is a very difficult task for everyone – one child, not to mention the five that you will have to arrange now.”