Trip excitement stilled by crash
Driver pleads guilty in Interstate 95 crash that killed 9-year-old boy
Date published: 2/4/2011
By KELLY HANNON
Steven Petillo, 9, was so excited about his family’s trip to Williamsburg last summer he was the first person out the door at 4:30 a.m.
“He was the first one in the car with his pillow,” said his mother, Maria Petillo of Floral Park, N.Y.
The family of five had planned the vacation for eight months with two other families, traveling in separate cars. They left early to avoid Washington traffic.
The family crossed into Stafford County on southbound Interstate 95 around 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 16, 2010. They had stopped at a rest area near Dale City. Steven and his two older twin brothers, Nicholas and Vincent Petillo, both 14, had stocked up on tourist brochures for Water Country USA and Busch Gardens.
Maria Petillo was driving the family’s Chevrolet Venture minivan and her husband, Michael, was riding in the passenger seat in the front. Maria Petillo’s last memory of Steven speaking from his seat in the middle row–the safest seat, they thought–was about a ride at Busch Gardens.
He was looking through all the pamphlets, and asked Vincent if he’d go on a specific ride with him. Vincent said he would.
A minute later, Michael Petillo recalled, he heard what sounded like an explosion.
The family felt their minivan flip again and again, and it went down an embankment, landing on the roof.
Hanging upside down, Michael Petillo saw his wife was OK, then fought his way out of the car to check on the boys. He saw Nicholas and Vincent first. Both were injured and dazed with cuts, but alive. Then he saw Steven, and a U-shape in the van from the impact of the crash. “I knew he was gone,” Michael Petillo said.
Steven, a devoted Yankee fan and fifth-grader, died at the crash scene.
“You can’t believe how your life changes in the blink of an eye,” Maria Petillo said. “Your son is here, and then he’s not.”
Yesterday, the family traveled back to Stafford to be present as a Prince William man who crashed his pickup truck into their minivan was convicted in Stafford Circuit Court of reckless driving.
Araz Norrie Rashed, 55, pleaded guilty to reckless driving, a misdemeanor.
- When Rashed is sentenced, he will face up to 12 months in jail.
- The crash happened near the Garrisonville Road interchange.
- Rashed was driving a pickup truck in the left southbound lane of I-95 when the the driver of the vehicle in front of him, in an Acura, braked, said Stafford prosecutor Eric Olsen.
- That driver, a 40-year-old Stafford woman, told state police a vehicle had suddenly switched from the center lane to the left lane, and she had braked to avoid a collision, Olsen said.
- Rashed was following the Acura too closely, Olsen said. Rather than stay in his lane, he struck the rear passenger side of the Acura, then swerved into the center lane of I-95 without looking, Olsen said.
- That is when he struck the Petillo family’s van, traveling in the center lane.
- “It was a violent crash,” Olsen said.
- All of the occupants were wearing seat belts.
- Rashed told police he was traveling 68 mph. The speed limit on that section of I-95 is 65 mph.
- Defense attorney Stuart Sullivan said seven witnesses to the crash who spoke to state police gave no indication that his client was driving aggressively.
- Sullivan said Rashed was reacting to the chain of events on the interstate, and that the Acura’s driver was “forced to hit her brakes rather abruptly.”
- While that does not absolve Rashed of his ability to stop in time, things happened very quickly, Sullivan said. He stressed his client has a clean driving record and no criminal record, he said.
- In an interview after court, Sullivan said his client is extremely distraught about Steven Petillo’s death, and has had difficulty sleeping since the crash.
- Rashed, who is Kurdish, was born in Iraq. He became an American citizen as part of a program that allowed Kurds persecuted by Saddam Hussien to come to the United States, Sullivan said.
- Fluent in Arabic, Rashed worked as a translator for the U.S. Army as a contractor in Iraq from 2006 to 2008.
- Rashed also recently received a security clearance from the Department of Defense, Sullivan said. He is also the sole guardian of a 16-year-old child, he said.
- As part of the case’s sentencing phase, the Petillo family can submit victim testimony. Yesterday the family brought an envelope to court stuffed with letters and pictures on construction paper, created by Steven’s neighborhood friends and baseball teammates.
- Baseball was their son’s greatest passion after his family, the Petillos said.
- “He just knew everything about the game,” Michael Petillo said.
- When Steven was only 3, he called his father at work to fill him on the score of a ongoing game.
- On the field, Steven enjoyed pitching, playing shortstop and third base.
- He was an especially caring child for someone so young, and was attentive to his grandfather, who had diabetes, his father said.
- “He loved to help people,” he said.
- His mother said her son’s absence in their family is like a puzzle that can never be complete again.
- “He’s got cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents that just miss him so much. It’ll never be the same,” Maria Petillo said.
- The couple buried Steven in his baseball uniform, along with an autographed baseball that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez sent the family after hearing about the crash.
- Steven would’ve turned 10 on Nov. 17.
- The family urged anyone in a rush to think twice before speeding.
- “If a person thinks of racing down a highway, getting somewhere they have to be, leave earlier. It’s just not worth it,” Michael Petillo said. “Just think about the impact this can have on a family.”