A community copes with tragedy


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West 97th Street at Amsterdam Ave. co-named after Ariel Russo


"Street re-namings are often a time to celebrate, but not today," began Councilman Mark Levine. "Today is about remembering a wonderful young girl who would have been five today."


Levine on Monday was presiding over the street co-naming of Ariel Russo, a four-year old who was struck and killed on West 97th Street at Amsterdam Avenue last year.


"I tried to write something to say but I couldn't, it was too hard. So I'm just going to talk from my heart right now," said Ariel's mother, Sophia Russo. "Ariel was born on a Tuesday, March 10, 2009. When she was born, and I held her, the first thing that I said to her was that, 'You're here to make a difference.'"


Ariel was walking to school with her grandmother, Katia Gutierrez, on June 4 last year when an unlicensed driver named Franklin Reyes, who was fleeing from police, jumped the curb at West 97th Street near Amsterdam Avenue and struck the pair, killing Ariel.


Sophia Russo imagined what today would have been like for her little girl. "She would've had a ballerina-themed birthday party at Build-A-Bear, she would've enjoyed a cup of chocolate frozen yogurt at 16 Handles, with gummy bears," she said.


Sophia Russo thanked the community who rushed to Ariel's aid and later formed ranks around the family with visits, letters, donations and food.


"This whole community has been here for us to lean on, and this street naming means so much to me because it means that this corner where this tragedy happened is illuminated and it represents Ariel and the change that she made and the fact that every single child is here to make a difference, and the fact that Upper West Siders and New Yorkers in general are the kind of people who rush to a horrific scene instead of running away from it," said Sophia, as her husband Alan looked on by her side.


A contingent of classmates from Ariel's school, Holy Name, attended the ceremony, and well-wishers and friends later attached balloons to the new street sign bearing her name.


Since the tragedy, Ariel's parents have waged a battle with city officials over the response times of emergency workers, who were dispatched to the scene four minutes after the initial call to 911. In December the City Council passed a law in Ariel's name that tightened the reporting requirements on response times for emergency workers.


"A terrible situation was made even worse when there was an inexplicable, indefensible, four-minute delay between the time of a call to 911 and the dispatching of an ambulance to the scene," said Councilman Levine. "A delay that may have made the difference between life and death for this young girl. The family of Ariel has fought bravely over the last nine months to make sure that such a delay never jeopardizes the life of another New Yorker. Thanks to their advocacy?the City Council passed the Ariel Russo 911 Emergency Call Delay and Reporting Act."


Levine and other city officials who spoke at the ceremony also mentioned Cooper Stock, a nine-year-old boy who was struck and killed by a taxi at 97th Street and West End Avenue. Officials reinforced their support for Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative to reduce pedestrian fatalities and Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez announced his office would be holding a Vision Zero town hall meeting at John Jay College on March 26.


"Alan and I and our family couldn't be there that day to save Ariel, but we're going to do everything we can to continue fighting to keep children - not just on this corner but in this whole neighborhood and in the whole city - safe," said Sophia Russo.


The street co-naming was the final piece in Ariel's legacy ? in addition to the law that was passed ? and one that Sophia Russo said would insure that her daughter is remembered. As for the future, Sophia Russo is expecting another child in May.


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