The local community has come together to support the family of a toddler who was struck and killed by a car in a Flagstaff parking lot.
“I think the only reason I’m standing and not just a puddle on the floor is because of so much community support,” said Rachel Tso.
Her son, Zaaditozhon “Zaadii” Tso, was just 3 years old when a woman drove her vehicle into the little boy, his 8-year-old sister Bahozhoni and Rachel on Feb. 22 in the middle of the day while they were in a marked pedestrian crossing in front of Best Buy, located at 5005 E. Marketplace Drive.
Rachel and Bahozhoni survived. Zaadii did not. He died early the next morning at Flagstaff Medical Center.
Flagstaff Police Department has not released the name of the 66-year-old driver or the police report, which will be reviewed by the County Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges. But Rachel said she will never forget what she witnessed that day.
HEART TO HEART
The last day of Zaadii’s life began like any other. The bright little boy with the toothy smile, golden skin and wild, dark curls waited for his mother to carry him from bed to the kitchen, just like she had done every day of his life.
“Every morning, his heart was touching my heart,” Rachel said. “He squeezed me and he held onto me for the walk down the hallway. We had that every single morning of his entire life — heart to heart.”
Zaadii’s name meant “Speaks with the force of gentle water” and at 3 years old, he was already a little chatterbox. He was the youngest of Rachel and Francis Tso's three children, as well as the youngest student in the 3-to-3rd Project at STAR School on Leupp Road. He knew all his letters and sounds and could count his toy cars up to 17.
“He had his own force and was just a force of nature," Rachel said. "He glowed from the inside out.”
NEEDED A CAMERA LENS
Rachel, a filmmaker and local educator, wanted to shoot the storm clouds rolling in that fateful Sunday for a film she was making. She just needed to buy a wide-angle lens.
Rachel got Bahozhoni and started to head out the door. Zaadii was playing on the floor in the Batman costume he never wanted to take off. When he saw his mother and big sister leaving, he asked if he could come, too.
“He just wanted to be with me all the time,” Rachel said.
When the three of them finished shopping, they went to the paving stone-covered pedestrian crossing outside Best Buy and prepared to go home. Rachel did everything she knew she was supposed to do to keep her children safe. She took Bahozhoni’s hand in her left hand and Zaadii’s hand in her right, looked to make sure no cars were coming and stepped into the crossing area.
Rachel said she and her children were almost completely across the roadway when, suddenly, the driver of a car she had noticed on the left-hand side of the aisle closest to the pedestrian crossing made a sharp left turn.
“If she had been in the right-hand lane and turned into the right-hand lane, she would have missed us,” Rachel said.
The car hit Bahozhoni first. She screamed as she and her mother flew onto the hood of the vehicle. Rachel tried to hold onto Zaadii’s little hand, but the force of the impact was too strong.
“I felt his hand slip from my hand and he went under,” she said in tears.
CAR KEPT ROLLING
Rachel said the driver’s head was turned away at the time of the impact. Rachel frantically screamed for her to stop when the driver finally looked at her, but the car kept rolling. It came to rest only after it hopped the curb and ran into a small tree in the parking lot median.
By then, it was too late.
The car had already run over Zaadii. Rachel pulled his body from behind the driver’s-side tire and screamed for the driver to call 911. She said the driver told her she could not because she was too "freaked out." Someone else called instead. The driver, she said, just kept saying she did not see them.
Rachel was so worried about her children that she did not realize her knee and shoulder had been seriously injured until her leg buckled as she got into the ambulance with Zaadii. He was still wearing his Batman costume. Bahozhoni, who had a fractured pelvis, followed in a second ambulance.
Doctors rushed Zaadii to the operating room but could not fix his serious injuries. Rachel prayed for a miracle as she, her husband, their 19-year-old daughter, friends and family members gathered around Zaadii in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at FMC. They touched him and sang to him until, in the early morning hours of Feb. 23, his heart stopped beating.
The Tso family and their friends are working to start a foundation in Zaadii’s honor. Its mission will be two-fold. First, the organizers hope to keep Zaadii’s memory alive by continuing to support indigenous education programs like the one Zaadii enjoyed at STAR School.
Second, they want to prevent other children from being hit by cars in parking lots. They have already started making yellow bumper stickers with Zaadii’s name and the phrase “The city needs eyes” to promote safe driving. The stickers are available at Winter Sun.
"I want to do something that can help prevent another mom from going through something like this,” Rachel said.
She also wants people to learn from the way Zaadii lived.
“I would say to love enthusiastically and fiercely everything you’ve got," she said. "Because that is what he did.”
“I think the only reason I’m standing and not just a puddle on the floor is because of so much community support."