NaTasha Newman was only 7, but she was already protective of her little brothers, and sometimes even her father.
“She was the best big sister I’ve ever seen,” James Newman, 29, said on Friday. “She took care of her brothers. She wanted me to be happy.”
Newman began to cry, thinking of how he will now bury the little girl whom he consider “like a protector ... my counselor.”
NaTasha was struck by a van and was killed Thursday afternoon across the street from Sandalwood Elementary School in Essex, where she was in second grade.
A crowd of about 100 gathered with balloons and candles Friday evening for a vigil to remember the girl, who was walking with her brothers after school to her grandmother’s house, where she often stayed.
“She loved to be in your lap,” said Kathleen Abdelhalim, her grandmother. “Tasha trusted everyone.”
She never made it to Abdelhalim’s house. Police said she darted in front of a work van heading into a driveway of a housing development across from the school, on South Marlyn Avenue. The first officer who responded, shortly before 3:30 p.m., immediately began CPR, and medics rushed her to Franklin Square Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
“Kids are so unpredictable,” said Abdelhalim, whose daughter Tina Mauricio is married to NaTasha’s father. “They’re clumsy, they’re growing so fast. I just hope she tripped and [the driver] didn’t see her.”
Police are continuing to investigate. They said the driver had remained on the scene.
Friends, relatives, neighbors, school staff and strangers arrived at the vigil as the sun set and darkened the bright fall sky. They piled up stuffed toys at the site of the accident, lit candles and eventually released balloons as people hugged and offered condolences to NaTasha’s mother, Brittany Morgan.
The girl’s aunt, Corinne Mauricio, brought a box of index cards and encouraged people to write something for NaTasha’s family members.
“She was the happiest little girl,” her aunt said. “She had the most wonderful heart.”
Brooklynne Walker lives in the neighborhood and came to the vigil with her children, including 7-year-old Lynnhaysia, who was in first grade with NaTasha. “She was nice,” Lynnhaysia said softly, describing herself as “sad.”
Walker nodded toward members of the Sandalwood Elementary staff who had joined the vigil. “They’re great. They’re very supportive. It’s a big family.”
The school was closed to students Friday for a previously scheduled staff in-service day. Nevertheless, counselors were on the scene Friday and will also be present for students Monday, a school representative said.
Abdelhalim said NaTasha was a smart girl; she wanted her grandmother to teach her how to sew. She loved hugs and vanilla ice cream, she said.
A Go Fund Me page created for NaTasha’s family shows the girl with beaded braids, grinning widely.
“She will always be remembered for her smile, it would light up the room,” the page states. “She loved everything a 7-year-old girl would love from Hello Kitty, dancing and of course playing with her siblings.”
James Newman spoke of getting the call about the incident; by the time he arrived, his daughter was already in an ambulance. He rushed to the hospital, he said, but she had already died.
“She was a great little girl,” he said. “She looked at the bright side of everything.”
Now, he said, he hopes to keep her memory alive in his own life.
“I’m going to keep her pretty much in my mind,” Newman said, in “everything I do.”
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Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled NaTasha Newman’s first name. It has been corrected here.