It was only eight days ago when the Gonzalez siblings got together to celebrate a big family wedding in Florida.
It was an amazing day, and the first time all seven siblings and their kids were under one roof.
No one could have imagined that a week later the family would be back together in Buffalo, but this time under very different – and tragic – circumstances.
Christieann L. “Chrissy” Gonzalez, 29; Luis A. Arroyo, 27; and 1-month-old Luis A. Arroyo Jr. – members of two large West Side families – died Thursday when their minivan drifted off the Thruway near Silver Creek and crashed into the back of a dump truck parked in the median.
The three were among 10 people – seven of them children – inside the van when the crash occurred while on their way home to Buffalo from Orlando, where they had attended the wedding of Christieann’s youngest brother.
“Chrissy was the one who decided that all the brothers and sisters would take a vacation at the same time and be there for my son’s wedding,” said her father, Christopher Gonzalez. “And it happened.”
“She was the one who was able to bring all of the family together,” he said Saturday, while at Women & Children’s Hospital. “Even in her death, she got all of us here.”
A large number of family members and friends from as far away as Florida and Puerto Rico are grieving and keeping watch over the seven crash survivors who remained hospitalized Saturday.
Jessica Gonzalez, 24 – the mother of Arroyo’s son and the sister of Christieann – is in serious condition in Erie County Medical Center.
Jessica’s 2-year-old son, Jaicob, was scheduled to be discharged on Saturday, family said. Her other son, Jaiden, 4, is in the intensive care unit of Children’s.
Chrissy’s 13-year-old daughter, Alexandra, and 10-year-old son, Alexis, are in stable condition, while her 8-year-old daughter, Yamaris, and Arroyo’s 6-year-old daughter, Adrianna, are in critical condition, family said.
The crash has affected Buffalo’s entire Latino community, said Casimiro D. Rodriguez Sr., a relative of the Gonzalez family, who serves as president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York.
“You don’t have to be a relative to feel the pain they’re feeling,” Rodriguez said.
Chrissy and Jessica are the only two girls among the seven siblings.
Chrissy grew up on the West Side and attended Grover Cleveland High School, said her mother, Damaris Medina.
In recent years, Chrissy bounced back and forth between Florida and Buffalo, but currently lived upstairs from her mom on Busti Avneue. She was a single mom raising three kids.
But Chrissy – whose middle name is Love – also was a fighter, a protector who guarded Jessica’s kids like she guarded her own.
“She was fierce,” said her cousin, Jonathan Ramos, who came up from Florida to be with the family. “Anybody that needed protection, she would stand out. She loved her family.”
“She was Chrissy Love,” her father said. “The name says it all.”
The 10 arrived at Chris Gonzalez’s house in Kissimmee, Fla., the first week of April and provided him one of the best two-week periods of his life. The family went fishing and swimming and Chris got to meet his newest grandchild – the blue-eyed “Little Prince,” Luis Jr.
After the April 13 wedding, the 10 set out for Buffalo on Tuesday, and Chrissy texted her dad frequently throughout the journey.
Her last text came shortly before the crash.
State police are still investigating the cause, but believe Arroyo – the driver of the minivan – may have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Arroyo’s friends and family have been gathering at his father’s Niagara Street residence over the past few days to mourn, light prayer candles and share stories about Luis.
Arroyo – the middle child of three siblings – attended Grover Cleveland High School on the West Side, where he grew up “a typical boy, getting into trouble with his cousins,” said Arroyo’s aunt, Annabel Arroyo.
He loved telling tall tales, and getting people to believe his outrageous stories and jokes, said one cousin, who is also named Luis Arroyo.
“If you were down, he loved to pick you up,” his cousin said. “He’d say anything to make you laugh.”
Arroyo cut lawns in the summer for Northridge Nursery in West Seneca, but recently applied for a job at Will Poultry on William Street. He took up boxing more than a year ago, but his passion was his softball team, Goodfellas Barber Shop, which named him most valuable player when they won the league championship last year.
His daughter, Adrianna, is from a previous relationship. He has been on-again, off-again with Jessica for about two years, his cousin said.
Their baby, Luis Jr., was born March 13.
The kids changed Arroyo for the better, his family said. They made him more responsible.
“When Friday and Saturday came, it was daddy’s time,” his cousin, Luis said. “No matter what, he would never say no.”
“He was a good father,” his Aunt Annabel said. “That was the best thing that could happen to him.”
Right now, both families are focused on praying for Jessica and the six children, while trying to provide for their futures and pay for the three funerals.
Arrangements were incomplete Saturday but at least one fund – in the name of “Demaris Medina and Children” – already has been set up at Bank of America.
“The costs are astronomical when you’ve got three people involved, so that’s a concern,” Rodriguez said.
“But I have told the family, ‘Don’t worry about the costs – worry about healing,’ ” Rodriguez said. “We’ll get through this.”