PLANT CITY, Fla. (WFLA) – Pastor Azael Pitti was woken in the night by a string of urgent messages about a sweet little girl meeting a terrible fate.
“‘Pastor, she died in a car accident.’ I was in shock. Actually everybody at church, I would say they are still in shock,” said Pastor Azael Pitti from Plant City Spanish Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
The pastor has identified Nathalie Mendez, 5, as the victim in Saturday night’s fatal crash on State Road 60 near Mulberry involving an accused drunk driver who fled the scene.
Her mother, Johana Mendez, is recovering from non-life-threatening injuries.
Nathalie was secured correctly in her car seat in the back of the car when a driver hit them at a high rate of speed from behind, authorities said.
“I have seen many accidents in my life but this one is really, really horrible,” said Pastor Pitti.
The driver, Ernesto Morales, 32, did not have his headlights on and was in the country illegally, according to the sheriff.
Morales is being held on no bond by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“This 5-year-old baby will no longer grow up to be a thriving adult. She will no longer have a high school diploma. She’ll never get to college. She won’t get to be married and have children and live the American dream,” said Sheriff Grady Judd.
“Nathalie was a very social girl, very social. Everybody loved her so much. You could see her playing around, doing activities. Enjoying so much singing,” said Pastor Pitti.
Video provided to News Channel 8 by Pastor Pitti shows Nathalie singing with a group of children at the church the morning of the crash.
He said she and her mother returned to the church for Adventurer’s Club events and left at around 6:30 p.m.
“Nobody could imagine that two hours later, that little one would be dead,” said Pastor Pitti.
The church canceled its planned camping trip to Pasco County this weekend, a trip Nathalie was supposed to take. Instead, he is planning a memorial service.
He hopes this little girl’s death will be a wake-up call to Morales, and all drivers, about the importance of driving sober.
“We have to learn that we have to be very careful when we drive. Driving is not a game. Driving is something we have to do responsibly,” said Pastor Pitti.
The pastor has set up an online fundraiser to raise money for the family.