When the Benlizar family woke up Christmas Eve, Rosa Benlizar remembers they were excited to see snow.
They did some last-minute present wrapping that day. That night, they were meeting at a cousin’s house in Rockville for a family dinner and gift exchange.
Rosa, 37, and her Silver Spring family piled into her Chevrolet Malibu. Within hours of leaving home, a crash would kill two of her passengers and a third would die in a hospital.
Rosa’s sister, Nicole Benlizar, sat in the passenger seat. A family friend, 30-year-old Jasmine A. Fajemisin, sat behind the driver’s seat. Rosa’s son, 17-year-old Antony Benlizar, sat in the middle back seat and her mother, 72-year-old Florentina J. Gonzalez, was sitting behind the passenger seat.
Rosa eased onto the Outer Loop of I-495 toward Rockville. She said she remembers checking the speedometer and traveling at the posted 55 miles per hour. It was drizzling.
Suddenly, she said, she lost control of her car just before the Connecticut Avenue exit. The car hydroplaned, Rosa said, on “maybe a thin sheet of ice or maybe a puddle of water the car just went over.”
Her car was struck by a 1994 Toyota truck and a Chevrolet Silverado after it started its slide, according to Maryland State Police. The impact, Rosa Benlizar said, caused her car to do a 360-degree turn.
“It was so scary,” she said. “It was just a moment of silence. Everything happened so fast.”
When the car came to a stop near the side of the road, she said, she looked back to see if everyone was all right.
When she turned around, Rosa saw Gonzalez was moving. Nicole Benlizar said she heard Gonzalez speak.
When Rosa shouted his name, Antony Benlizar sat up, opened his eyes and looked right at her, she said.
She asked if he was OK, but she said he didn’t answer.
Rosa Benlizar told her mom “everything was going to be OK.” Her concern was Antony. She didn’t want her mother to see him “laid out.”
“He moved, so I figured, ‘He’s fine.’” Rosa said. “I didn’t want her to think it was worse.”
Maryland State Police initially reported the driver of the Malibu — Rosa Benlizar — was “believed to be under the influence of alcohol based on observations by Montgomery County Officers on scene and EMS.”
First Sgt. Dan Pickett of Maryland State Police said Jan. 23 alcohol was still considered a possible factor in the accident. However, Rosa told The Gazette on Jan. 22 that she was not drinking at all on the day of the accident and that blood was drawn in the hospital for a blood alcohol test.
“I was not drinking and driving. I was not drunk driving,” Rosa said.
Lt. H. B. Martz of the Rockville Barrack told The Gazette on Jan. 29 that an “evidentiary test” was administered, but that the investigation is not yet complete.
“Everything that should’ve been done or covered was done by the troopers,” Pickett said Jan. 23.
An investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed, Ramon Korionoff, public affairs director for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, told The Gazette on Jan. 23.
When the ambulance came, Nicole Benlizar said, she heard medical crews say Antony Benlizar and Fajemisin had a pulse, but they were not breathing.
“I’m thinking they were just passed out. I wasn’t thinking that they weren’t going to make it,” Nicole Benlizar said.
An ambulance took Rosa Benlizar to the University of Maryland R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. She had a fracture on the left side of her face and her eye was swollen shut. She also sustained bruising on the right side of her ribs from the seatbelt.
Her mother and her sister were taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va. Antony and Fajemisin were taken to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.
Nicole Benlizar was told because of the different types of injuries, the passengers were sent to different hospitals.
While in the hospital bed, she was told Antony and Fajemisin had died.
“I told them, ‘It’s not true.’ I just started yelling and crying and screaming and told them they were wrong. They had the wrong person,” Rosa Benlizar said. “He was alive. He looked at me.”
In that moment, Rosa said, she ripped off her neck brace and attempted to take out her own IV. She knew she had to go to Suburban to see him. When she saw that the body in front of her on the hospital bed was her son, she “just broke down,” she said.
“I saw that it was him. I just went hysterical and lost it,” Rosa said. “All of a sudden, I felt the biggest loneliness. I had this huge hole in my heart, but I didn’t even know if I was breathing.”
When Rosa left Suburban with family members to see her mother at Inova Hospital, she couldn’t tell her Antony had died. Antony Benlizar would come home from school to help take care of her and pick up her medications and groceries. Some commented he was like her doctor, Rosa said.
Rosa Benlizar said doctors told her that her mother was “recovering at an impressive pace.” But as days went by, she said, her mother had a feeling something wasn’t right.
“When you would visit her, she would look at you, and her eyes would look somewhere else,” Rosa said. “She saw something. She was focusing on something or someone. A lot of us believe that Antony was actually with her and that she knew.”
Florentina J. Gonzalez died Jan. 1. Rosa said she believes her mother stopped fighting for her life “just to be with him.”
Rosa said she has a hard time sleeping and getting up in the morning, especially on rainy days that bring her back to the day of the accident. She hopes to return to work at the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services in early February.
“I just keep repeating the accident in my head, over and over,” said Rosa, who was tasked with picking out the two caskets that both her son and her mother would be buried in.
Rosa remembers sitting in the church, staring at the caskets of her mother and her son, side by side Jan. 7. She said she wanted to be strong for her other children.
Rosa said her son still had so many dreams and so much he wanted to accomplished. He was “just too young,” she said.
“I’m heartbroken. Those words ... don’t even scratch the surface of the emptiness in my family,” she said.