ROCHESTER, Minn. — Erika Cruz was a couple blocks shy of home when a driver slammed into the car she was in, ending her life Feb. 23. She was 18.
On Sunday night, Feb. 28, her family walked those blocks to attend a vigil honoring her.
Nearly 400 people gathered to remember Cruz at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 12th Street Southeast in Rochester, where a driver police say was drunk collided with the car she was in, killing her.
That so many people attended speaks to the life she lived, said her father, Rene Cruz.
Her legacy of kindness and encouragement will live on, he promised the crowd.
Friends, classmates, neighbors and acquaintances lit candles, huddled together against the cold, and shielded their flames from the wind with their hands.
Erika’s family knelt beside a makeshift memorial along the fence outside Lincoln Elementary School at Eighth Avenue and 12th Street Southeast where the crash claimed her life.
Her mother, Marcela Cruz, laid flowers and pictures at the memorial, said a prayer, and repeated her daughter’s name in grief as friends and family members comforted her.
Rene said members of various organizations have already approached him with ideas to honor his daughter.
“She was so in love with helping others,” he said. “It’s going to be a long journey, but her legacy is not over.”
Whether she was at the gym, cooking healthy meals, or studying, she encouraged the people around her to put forth their best efforts.
“That’s what she did — she inspired others,” said Erik Cruz, her older brother who is attending Duke University in Durham, N.C. “You can see the outcome of that.”
Miranda Little, 19, who went to Mayo High School with Erika and went on to attend University of St. Thomas with her in St. Paul, said Erika’s concern and encouragement of others was sincere.
“You could see that right away when you met her,” Little said. “She was such a genuine person.”
Little noted that several St. Thomas classmates made the trip to Rochester for the vigil.
“Her hugs were the most sincere hugs,” said Olga Acuna, who lives next door to Cruz’s family.
“You could see the sincerity in her eyes,” said Olga Muro, family friend.
Rene said it isn’t clear yet how Erika’s memory will live on, but the vigil was a good indication of the effect her short life has had on people.
“We will work on that,” he said. “It’s a tragedy, and it shouldn’t have happened.”
Sterling Haukom, 34, faces charges of felony criminal vehicular homicide and gross misdemeanor driving while intoxicated for his role in the crash that claimed Erika’s life. According to Capt. Casey Moilanen, police determined Haukom was driving a 2008 Ford F150 Haukom north on Eighth Avenue and T-boned a 2012 Volkswagen Passat Erika was in as she was heading eastbound on 12th Street.
Erika was taken to Mayo Clinic Hospital-Saint Marys Campus, where she was pronounced dead.