Prosser mourns after crash kills mother, daughter

Tri-City HeraldOctober 22, 2012 

— A Prosser High School freshman and her mother killed in a crash Saturday spent the morning doing what the teen loved -- playing soccer while her biggest cheerleader watched from the sidelines.

Alejandra "Alex" Islas' team won their match in Toppenish, and the 14-year-old was excited to get home and share the news.

But on the drive back to Prosser, the family's SUV was hit by a flatbed truck that crossed the center line.

Ilda L. Islas, 44, and her daughter died at the scene. The Honda Pilot's other passenger, 5-year-old Francisco "Panchito" Islas Jr., survived.

On Monday, the teen's classmates found ways to come together in their grief, as the family made plans to bury two of their loved ones while trying to understand what happened.

"My sister was an incredibly selfless person. She cared so much about her kids, which really were the No. 1 priority," said Sal Mendoza Jr. of Kennewick, one of Ilda Islas' four brothers. "It's not a surprise that she was coming back from a soccer game. That was her life, making sure that her kids were going to school, that her kids were going to play sports, that they were active."

Islas and her husband of 21 years, Francisco Islas, have an older daughter together, Isabel. Their children also have a half-sister, Christina Alaniz.

Alex Islas was honored to be selected for Prosser's varsity soccer team and was "just a little jet" on the field, said Prosser High Principal Kevin Lusk. He shared with the Herald what people said about the teen.

Alex, who wore No. 20, also was remembered Monday by many as "the little girl with a big number and an even bigger heart," he said.

"That's kind of what we're embracing," Lusk said. "It's a big loss."

Students at the front of the school Monday could look toward a hill above Prosser and see a large cross erected in Alex's memory, along with purple stones spelling out her name and jersey number near a giant heart. The memorial was placed next to a cross that's been on the hill since 1995, after student Paul Brulotte, 17, died in a car crash.

Mendoza said the family feels the community's love and is appreciative for the prayers and support.

"It's been tough," the Tri-City attorney told the Herald. Earlier in the day, they went to the wrecked SUV to get the family's personal belongings, including Alex's soccer shoes.

"She was full of life. She was like the epitome of light," Mendoza said about his niece, who was looking forward to her quinceanera next August to celebrate her 15th birthday.

Alex's friends turned to social media to share their grief and thoughts, creating a Facebook page, R.I.P. Alejandra Islas. They also used Facebook to spread the word to wear Alex's favorite color, purple, to school Monday.

Prosser High's colors are red and white, but Monday the traditionally red rock in the school parking lot was draped in purple.

The volleyball team has requested to wear purple as a warm-up color at their next game, and the football team plans to wear a purple ribbon with Alex's soccer number on it, he said.

"You might even find the Mustang in the middle of the (football) field purple," Lusk said. "We're just doing anything we can do to support the kids in the school."

Counselors were available at school, and a room also was set aside so students could make a card, write a poem or leave a message on large purple banners for the Islas family.

Ilda Islas and her kids were on Highway 22, not far from home, when the crash occurred at 2 p.m. Saturday. Their Honda was eastbound when a 2000 Ford flatbed truck left the westbound lane and slammed into them.

Islas and Alex died instantly, said Benton County Coroner John Hansens. The crash was described as being head-on, but the point of impact was at both vehicles' left headlights. Alex was sitting on the left side of the SUV, behind her mother, Hansens said.

Panchito, who was in the back seat on the passenger side, was taken to PMH Medical Center in Prosser after the crash.

"He was unharmed except for minor bruising," said sister Isabel Islas, 19. "Luckily nothing severe."

The truck's driver, Jeremy Meyer, 21, of Mabton, also was treated at the Prosser hospital, said spokesman Fred Lamb.

Washington State Patrol troopers said driver inattention caused Meyer to cross the centerline and collide with the SUV.

There's been speculation that Meyer may have been texting or on a cellphone, but investigators still are trying to determine what exactly caused the inattention.

"It's still premature to be making any assumptions at this point," said Lt. Terry Liebrecht. "They're looking into different aspects of what would be a distraction to the driver."

In addition to cellphones, drivers can be distracted by changing the station on the radio, adjusting their seat or even looking through the window at something on the side of the road.

"It is very tragic," Liebrecht said. "We wish we had the answers, and we don't."

Islas' best friend and co-worker, Genoveva Ibarra, said she was in disbelief after hearing about the fatal crash and still expected to see Ilda at work Monday morning.

"She was more like a sister to me. It's really, really hard," she said.

Islas was the field project supervisor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Sunnyside, where they operate as the Center for Community Health Promotion.

Ibarra, who's known Islas for 16 years, worked side-by-side with her on a number of grant projects, including diabetes, booster seats and cancer awareness.

Islas was strong, kind and always happy, but she also was a good supervisor who could be strict and wanted things done as best as they could be, Ibarra said.

"I'm going to miss her so much," she said. "It's going to be so hard coming here to the office. I learned from the best, and I know we have to keep going."

Islas also worked for Benton-Franklin Superior Court as the administrative assistant from December 2002 to January 2005. She was in charge of scheduling court hearings for the judges, along with managing civil cases and handling arbitration.

"On a personal level, she was probably the most kind person I've ever met," said Pat Austin, Superior Court administrator. "I never heard her say a bad word about anybody. The epitome of a good person."

The rosary will be said at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Sacred Heart, with Mass at 11 a.m. Thursday. A private burial will be Friday at Prosser Cemetery. Arrangements are being handled by Prosser Funeral Home & Crematory.

Community members have reached out to the family, wanting to help by making donations. Mendoza said they're not asking for donations, but an account has been set up for "The Islas Family" at AmericanWest Bank for those who wish to give.

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