Headed out to do some Christmas shopping, Christa Zepf was about halfway between her Blue Point home and an outlet mall when she became the sole fatality of Wednesday's fiery, 35-vehicle wreck on the Long Island Expressway.
Zepf's death has shattered the heart of Donald Court, the tight-knit block she had called home for almost four decades.
Friends and neighbors Thursday recalled a German native who baked plum cakes and shared the spoils; a tough-minded wife who helped build her family's surgical supply business; a generous gardener who'd offer to tend her neighbor's flowers; a grandmother who enjoyed walks along the Great South Bay and watching her grandson grow up.
"It just doesn't seem like it could be," said a tearful neighbor, Janet Nadasky, 73. "One casualty in this whole big mess, and it happens to be her. She had so much going for her."
Zepf, 68, and her husband, Hubert, were in the throes of repairing their Sandy-ravaged house on the edge of the bay. They opted to stay home during the rebuilding, Nadasky said.
"There was a little lull in the work on the house, and she said, 'I'll use this time to go to the mall and shop.' And that's why she died," said Nadasky's husband, Robert, 69.
A tractor trailer hauling storm debris triggered the massive crash, police said. The truck slammed into multiple vehicles, sparking a ferocious blaze. During the pileup that followed, the Toyota Camry that Zepf was driving to the mall, Tanger Outlets in Riverhead, was hit in the front and rear, according to police.
For years, she had worked the front desk of her family's company, ZEPF Surgical Instruments, with her husband handling sales, neighbors said.
Making his wishes known through neighbors, Hubert Zepf declined to speak to reporters Thursday night.
In retirement, Christa Zepf was excited about her grandson, Kyle, who Nadasky said is 2 or 3 years old and lives near Boston with the Zepfs' daughter, Jennifer.
Nadasky said Zepf would often drive -- alone -- to Massachusetts to help her daughter care for the boy.
"It's going to be so hard for her daughter. She was so devoted to her grandson," Nadasky said of Zepf. "She was excited to be a grandmother and was looking forward to immersing herself in his well-being."
This weekend, neighbor Steve Belz said, the couple had planned to travel to Massachusets to enjoy Christmas with her grandson. "She was so excited about the trip." With Bill Mason