Benitez family survivor describes horror of Florida crash that shattered Westbury family

Two people from Westbury were killed and six injured in a crash involving a semitruck and a van on Interstate 95 in Ormond Beach, Fla., on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, according to Florida Highway officials. (Credit: Dave Samuels)

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Disaster struck and the Benitez family was shattered 90 minutes into their 19-hour drive home to Westbury from a weeklong trip in Kissimmee, Florida.

That's when a damaged tractor-trailer flew by in predawn light.

The truck "zoomed past me and hit the emergency brakes," said Iris Benitez, 32, of Westbury. "I saw smoke and glass."

The truck had struck the van her father was driving with seven other family members as passengers.

The Florida Highway Patrol has identified Angel Rafael Benitez, 63, and Angela Maria Benitez, 28, both of Westbury, as those killed in the two-vehicle crash that left four other family members seriously injured in Ormond Beach, Florida, early Saturday. Two others, one a 6-month-old infant, were unharmed.

Charges against the truck driver, Javier Lopez Flores, 50, of Avon Park, Florida, are pending, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

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Florida police said Angel Benitez was driving north on Interstate 95 near Old Dixie Highway, about 20 miles north of Daytona Beach, when Flores, traveling in the same direction, crossed into Benitez's lane, clipping the left rear of the van.

"My dad loved Florida, and my sister was planning to move there in February. It's ironic that the place they loved is the place that took them," Iris Benitez said Monday from Halifax Health, a Daytona Beach hospital where family members remained.

Iris Benitez recalled the moments before the van, which was following her vehicle in the interstate's slow lane at about 5:45 a.m., was struck.

As the trailer veered off the highway after striking her father's van, a startled and confused Iris Benitez, traveling with three relatives, peered in the rearview mirror, looking for his van. But with little sunlight, she couldn't see, she said.

The daughter quickly pulled over, getting out of her 2008 silver Dodge Durango SUV and calling her parents, who didn't answer their cellphones.

On the shoulder of the interstate, she flicked on her high-beam lights and turned the SUV around, she said, driving on the grass in the direction of oncoming traffic until she saw her father pinned under the van and one of her three sisters lying on the side of the road. She rushed to their aid.

"I shook Angela, but nothing," Iris Benitez said. "I saw my dad and knew he was gone."

She added, "I found my mom in a thorn bush holding the baby [a 6-month-old grandchild] like a football."

From the scene, a couple of those riding with Iris Benitez called Westbury relative Angela Bolling, 39, who had not gone on the trip. "We couldn't comprehend what was happening. It totally shocked me," Bolling said Monday. "We're miles away, but it was like, 'Is this really real? I won't see them again?' "

The close-knit family travels to Kissimmee annually.

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The trips started years ago when a few of Iris Benitez's nieces were watching cartoons on the Disney Channel. The idea sprang up. Walt Disney World is located near Kissimmee.

"Let's just go," Iris Benitez's mother, Mercedes Noemy Benitez, 57, said at the time.

The mother often described her role as "the money." She counted on Angel and Angela as the designated drivers and Iris as the one to peruse maps and navigate.

This year's adventurous, weeklong road trip for the family of 12 had been capped by an airboat ride through a swamp, Iris Benitez recalled.

"My dad was an anchor and we were connected to a boat, and now we're just floating," the daughter said. "It hurts. I don't know how to feel. I'm numb. . . . I'm angry and lost. I'm a daddy's girl."

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Family members said Angel Benitez enjoyed fixing cars and gardening but also liked to go crabbing and fishing for snappers. "God will take me when he wants me, and that's it," the father, a diabetic awaiting heart surgery, often told Iris Benitez.

Relatives said Angela Benitez often cared for ailing neighborhood pets and adopted a kitten she found under a car.

"She was an animal encyclopedia. It was incredible," Iris Benitez, said of her younger sister.

Several of Iris Benitez's family members remained in Halifax Health Monday.

Her mother, who suffered fractured ribs and a severe leg injury, was scheduled to have surgery Tuesday. Maria Mercedes Benitez, 17, a niece, tore muscle tendons in her leg, must wear a back brace for four months due to an injured vertebra and has to immediately start physical therapy.

Ibes Benitez, 37, a sister, suffered a ruptured spleen and lost large amounts of blood. She also hurt her back. Carmen Elana Benitez, 24, another sister, sustained a fractured arm, and her head was split open and an ear had to be reattached.

The 6-month-old, Olivia Theodora Moody, and another child, Cameron Moody, 3, were the only occupants of the van who were uninjured.

With Darran Simon

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