It was a warm night, and a watchful adult was outside, sitting on a step with her baby. Otherwise, 6-year-old Aaliyah Griffin never would have been allowed to play outside her Feltonville rowhouse.
Two doors down, Gina Marie Rosario, 7, begged her mother to play with the new neighbor girl. Aaliyah had a jump rope, and Gina wanted to teach her a game.
And then, before anyone could react, a silver Pontiac streaked down Third Street. It plowed into the four and came to rest wedged between a house and a utility pole.
"There was no time to scream," said Abby Aponte, who saw the appalling Wednesday night scene unfold. "It happened too fast."
The two girls and the baby, Remedy Smith, who would have been a year old today, were pronounced dead shortly after the 7:30 crash. The baby's mother, Latoya Smith, 22, died at Albert Einstein Medical Center yesterday morning.
A day after the crash, jagged splinters still jutted from the pole the Pontiac had struck. The steps where the bigger girls had played were shattered and askew, with flecks of blood and grease apparent. A memorial grew on the sidewalk: teddy bears, lit candles with holy pictures stuck in them, a Phillie Phanatic, a Barney doll, messages scrawled to those lost.
Her hands shaking, Sandra Elias, Gina's grandmother, stood among the swell of relatives, friends, and strangers who gathered at the memorial. Just before the accident, Gina and her mother, Elias' daughter Tammy Rosario, were ready to take a walk to a pharmacy to pick up medicine. But Gina had seen Aaliyah, and she coaxed her mother into waiting just a little longer so she could play.
Suddenly, there was a screech of tires and a crash, and Gina was underneath the car. Rosario saw it all, and Elias rushed outside when she heard the noise.
"My daughter and I tried to lift the car, but we couldn't," said Elias, who has lived on the block for 14 years.
Rosario scrambled under the car to try to rescue her daughter, Elias said, but neighbors began shouting at Elias and Steven Agudelo, Rosario's boyfriend, to extract Rosario, who is deaf.
"The car was spilling gasoline," Elias said. "I had to get my daughter out."
Inside Elias' house, Rosario, still with shards of glass in her feet from the wreckage, keened and wept, rocking back and forth with a photo of her daughter in her arms. Elias went to the doorway and took the framed picture from her.
"That's my Gina," Elias said, showing a photo of a little girl with brown hair and a wide smile. "So beautiful."
Gina, she said, was a sweet girl and a dancer who liked to jump rope and play with her cousin. She was a student at the Willard School, and she adored the High School Musical movies.
A mere two doors down, Vanessa Boyer remembered Aaliyah, her petite granddaughter, as "my angel," a proud big sister to two siblings.
Inquisitive and happy, "Pooka," as the family called her, loved saying the alphabet and couldn't wait to ride the bus to school next fall as a first grader. She was quiet around strangers but talked up a storm around her family, especially the younger ones.
"She would rock them when they cried," Boyer said. "She would get their bottles, make faces at them to make them laugh."
Aaliyah lived at Boyer's house with her mother, Boyer's daughter Kaillalah Griffin. Latoya Smith, the sister of Kaillalah Griffin's boyfriend, Theo Canada, lived there, too, with her baby. The family moved in six months ago from Frankford and Victoria Streets.
Relatives said that Wednesday night, Aaliyah asked for a dollar to buy some candy for them. She came back with Blow Pops for everyone, and wanted to sit out front to eat hers.
Normally, Aaliyah wouldn't be allowed out front, Boyer said, because the street is too dangerous. Nearby shootouts and robberies made Boyer think it might be time to move to a quieter neighborhood.
"It's safer out back," Boyer said, "but she was sitting out there because it was nice. She said, 'Mom, can I sit outside with Toya?' "
Kaillalah Griffin gave in and sent her daughter to the front steps with Smith and Remedy, who had just figured out walking and was going to have a birthday party this weekend.
Latoya, Boyer said, was thrilled to have a little girl after two boys.
"She just stayed with her baby," Boyer said. "She loved that little girl. She'd be out there with that pink stroller."
Aaliyah had brought a jump rope with her to the steps. As soon as Gina came over, Aaliyah ran back inside and kicked off her worn pink flip-flops, which still lay on Boyer's blue-and-white tile floor yesterday. Aaliyah had just gotten new sandals that tied to her ankles, and thought they would be better to jump in.
She never got the chance.
Boyer, watching television in a front bedroom, heard the impact and bolted.
"By the time we jumped up and got down the steps, it was all over," Boyer said. "It was a mess - the babies were underneath the car."
Inside Boyer's house, four candles glowed in the window. LaTanya Griffin, Kaillalah Griffin's sister and Aaliyah's aunt, placed them there in memory of the dead.
Ted Canada, father of Latoya Smith and grandfather of Aaliyah and Remedy, stood in a light rain, puzzling as yet another tragedy targeted his family.
"It's crazy. It's senseless," said Canada, a bus driver. "They were kids, innocent kids, playing together, and this idiot jumps the curb. I can't find no sense in that."
Canada, a member of the antiviolence group Men United for a Better Philadelphia, lost his son Lamar to murder in 2005. Two years ago, another granddaughter was killed in a traffic accident.
"It hasn't hit me yet," he said of the latest blow. "I'm just . . . the only thing that holds me up is knowing that those babies are in the arms of the Lord."
Porscha Canada, Latoya's sister, wept for the baby they called NeeNee.
"She was gorgeous," Canada said. "Everyone loved her. She was 1. My sister was 22. Pooka was 6 - babies."
Canada said she wasn't about to hate Donta Cradock and Ivan Rodriguez, the men charged with the four murders.
"What's the point of being angry now?" she asked.
Tammy Rosario, clutching a rosary and wearing her brother's hooded sweatshirt, did not feel the same way.
"I want them to pay for what they did. I will never forgive you for this. You killed my child," she said.
Of her daughter Gina, Rosario said: "She was so bright, and now she's gone. She was only 7! I had two beautiful children. Now I just have one."
At the nearby Willard School, principal Ron Reilly watched a stream of uniformed students run into the school yard.
Gina was a second grader there, at the school since kindergarten.
"Everybody knows her and loves her," Reilly said. "She always had a smile for me."
In the community, anger and grief prevailed.
Jimmy Borras, who lives nearby, said the city should build a safe place for the neighborhood children to play. Without a close playground or rec center, youngsters often just congregate on Third Street, playing handball against a warehouse wall.
"We need a rec," Borras said. "All our kids are out here. We have no playground. There are lots of abandoned buildings, but nothing for our kids."
Others decried the way cars speed through the neighborhood.
"They fly," said Gina's grandmother, Elias. "This is like an expressway."
Borras said he took some comfort in the way the accident has brought the already tight-knit community closer. Before, the Boyers and Griffins didn't know the Rosarios.
But at midafternoon yesterday, Tammy Rosario approached Boyer, embracing her.
"It doesn't matter who it happens to," Borras said. "It happens to someone in this neighborhood, it happens to your family."
Last night, about 200 people gathered on Third Street for a vigil.
Alfredo Toro stood nearby and gave long hugs to his nieces, acknowledging that the moment reminded him of just how precious they were.
"They're three little angels," he said of the young victims. "They didn't harm nobody."
Verna Brown kneeled to speak to her grandson, Devon Brown Griffin, 4, who knew the victims and played with them frequently.
"She's left the doctor's," Brown told the boy. "She's gone to heaven."