A highway tragedy: A 13-year-old girl is killed on PCH, and Redondo Beach responds with an outpouring of love
A 13-year-old girl is killed on PCH, and Redondo Beach responds with an outpouring of love
by David Mendez
At approximately 4:40 p.m. last Friday, 13-year-old Ciara Smith rolled her bicycle down a sidewalk curb cut, following a friend, as the two appeared ready to head south across Knob Hill Avenue at Pacific Coast Highway.
For reasons unclear, her bike pulled her into the right-most travel lane of southbound PCH, and she was struck by an L.A. Metro bus.
She was pronounced dead at the scene, her blue bicycle and its basket laying at the curb. Her friend was unharmed.
The busy intersection was populated with many witnesses, and eventually many onlookers. Some were employees of a nearby urgent care facility, some were friends and fellow students at Parras Middle School, where Ciara attended classes.
But before the night was over, a memorial had already sprung up at the southwest corner of PCH and Knob Hill, where flowers and candles were laid in honor of Ciara.
The night of
The collision, Redondo Beach police said, left no sign of being anything but an accident of happenstance.
The bus, traveling along the 232 route south to Long Beach, had been traveling at safe speeds, and had a green light to pass through the intersection.
Police further believe that Smith and her bicycle accidentally swerved into the traffic lane.
According to L.A. Metro, MV Transportation, the company that is contracted to operate the bus line, reported that the bike hit the right side of the bus, between the front and rear doors.
Security cameras from a nearby business, partially catching the incident on digital video, support the theory that the incident was a tragic accident.
The footage, provided by business owner Pierre Hoffman, also catches the immediate aftermath from onlookers. One man is seen walking south along the side of Pacific Coast Highway, looking at the sidewalk as the bus passes, another friend trailing behind him. He then is seen looking up, and with a start, runs in the direction of the intersection.
Hoffman said that the two men were friends leaving his business, and that one grabbed Ciara’s friend to pull her away from the scene.
Other witnesses say that employees from the nearby Exer Urgent Care rushed to the scene as well to try and provide emergency care.
However, neither they nor paramedics could save Ciara.
Police surveyed the scene, interviewing witnesses and building a privacy screen around Ciara’s body, covered by a white sheet. A priest was seen passing through the police roadblock, arriving to speak to the family. News trucks from around Los Angeles arrived on the scene, interviewing witnesses and friends as night fell.
By 10:40 p.m., police had cleared the scene. By 11:15 p.m., people were seen leaving candles and flowers at the corner of Knob Hill and Pacific Coast Highway in memory of the young girl whose life was cut short by seemingly random happenstance.
Sorrow from joy
By midday on Saturday, the memorial had bloomed. A sign informing drivers that they were traveling along the Los Angeles Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway had been co-opted, covered with homemade posters, signboards and photos of Ciara.
A bed of flowers, stuffed animals and candles had grown from the sign’s base and outward toward the roadway. At its edge, someone had left a box of tissues for mourners.
The sidewalk was packed at 11 a.m. Groups of crying teenagers were embracing each other, mourning their fallen friend. Others were silent, with tears in their eyes. Many were struggling to find a place to set down flowers, or post what they’d brought, whether it was a picture, a poster, or even a set of sheet music.
The theme was clear: Ciara was loved.
A few hours later, for a 1:30 p.m. vigil, parents Barry and Rose arrived, though Ciara’s two younger sisters stayed at home. Mourners converged on them immediately.
Rose was sobbing. Barry was stalwart, but clearly taken with all of the support and love shown to him and his family.
Julian Baughman, a friend of the family whose daughter knew Ciara, was there when the Smiths arrived.
“I was with Barry…I held him, and was talking to him for a bit,” Baughman said. “[He] let me know that he’s amazed by the outpouring…as sad as it may seem, they really know now how much love they brought into the world.”
With Barry’s permission, Baughman got the attention of the nearly 60 people who gathered to stand vigil for Ciara.
He told the children there that they would soon “understand that the pain and sorrow they’re feeling now comes from great joy; that they wouldn’t feel this type of emotion if it didn’t come from the great joy that Ciara brought to their lives.”
Baughman, he said, felt that from her. His daughter had met Ciara through RB Rec, an elementary after-school program.
“I feel sorry for the people who never got to know her in her 13 years; from the space of about 8 billion people, I had the opportunity to know her and see her light shine,” Baughman said. “She was doing what she always did for 13 years, and that was to live her life with great joy.”
When approached, Barry Smith didn’t have much to say. But through sad eyes and a smile, he offered gratitude, a handshake and a hug, to all of those who had shown up to pay tribute to his daughter. The outpouring of support, he said, was tremendous.
A school rocked
Parras Middle School Principal Dr. Lars Nygren had the weight of the world on his shoulders on Monday. It’s the first time in his career that he’s lost a student, and as he said, there’s really nothing that can prepare an educator for that loss.
“But when you’re confronted with it, you’ve got to do everything you can to help staff, students and the family involved,” Nygren said. “These are kids that you see every day and…it’s like losing a family member. When a sudden death happens, it rocks everyone.”
The district has been involved in planning to support its staff and students since they learned of Ciara’s death on Friday, he said, and Parras’ Parent-Teacher-Student Association has been instrumental in providing additional support.
Redondo Beach Unified School District counselors have been on hand since Monday, and will be for as long as they’re needed, to help grieving students and staff, Nygren said. The PTSA, led by president Danni Dean, has been offering its own support, making memorial ribbons made from Ciara’s favorite colors — teal, mint green, and blue — and buying supplies to take care of the Parras student family.
“It’s heartbreaking to go buy 50 boxes of tissues for grieving middle schoolers,” Dean said. “These kids are so young, many of them have not experienced any kind of death or accident like that…the school has done an amazing job of being prepared to deal with this.”
On Sunday, Parras was the site of a hastily-planned memorial service, grown through social media. About 150 people from around the Redondo Beach community had shown up, Nygren said. Police, firefighters, students and family all gathered to memorialize Ciara.
“I remembered seeing her in the hallways, her smiling and saying hi…how she typifies the kind of student that makes our school so special,” Nygren said. “I think it was something that was needed, and a lot of healing took place that morning.”
By Tuesday night, the memorial at PCH and Knob Hill had grown even greater. A ghost bike, a bicycle painted white to stand as a memorial for a fallen cyclist, had been affixed to a nearby fence. There was no longer room for a tissue box to stand ready for mourners, as the sea of flowers and gifts had nearly expanded to the sidewalk. Instead, lighters stood at the ready for those ready to re-light extinguished candles.
After 10 p.m., one woman had shown up to do just that. She didn’t give her name, but she shared her story.
She lives nearby, on the Esplanade in the Avenues. The accident has been in her mind since it happened, she said, and every night she’s prayed for the Smith family.
She snuck out tonight, she said, after going to the gym, telling her husband that she had one more errand to run before going home. Her plan was to make sure that every candle that could be lit, would be lit.
She’s a mother too; her boys are far younger than Ciara, about 2 years old. But her heart was broken for the Smiths.
“I don’t know if I could go on living,” she said, were she in Barry or Rose’s place.
She doesn’t know Ciara or her family.
“But I might have seen her; I could’ve ridden by her on the Esplanade, or skated by her on the Strand,” she said.
Like the rest of Redondo Beach, she’s hurting. Like many other mothers, she’s holding her children just a bit tighter.
As she walks away to return home to her family, she tells me to go home — that it’s too late for someone so young to be out.
“And you better call your mother,” she reminds me.
It’s unclear how long this memorial will stand. Mayor Bill Brand, for one, notes that community members have expressed a desire to place a memorial bench in the area as a permanent memorial.
Personally, he’s struggling to find the right words to say. Brand was personally asked by Ciara’s father to speak at her memorial on Thursday. This is his first time since his election in March that he’s had to face such a tragedy as the city’s leader.
“I was elected Mayor for entirely different reasons…it’s humbling to be in this position with a grieving community, and helping people deal with such a tragedy,” Brand said.
He was amazed, he said, by the strength shown by Ciara’s family, and how they can show gratitude to the City during such a trying time.
“I’m just trying to come up with something,” Brand said. “It all just seems so trivial. Tragedy like this puts into perspective what’s really important.”
It’s a dark situation, Julian Baughman said.
“A light went out before our eyes, but in our heart, she still shines bright,” Baughman said. “And that light is eternal.”
A memorial for Ciara Smith will be held at St. Lawrence Martyr Catholic Church, 1940 S. Prospect Ave., on Thursday, May 11, at 1:30 p.m. The family requests that attendees wear bright colors in Ciara’s memory. ER