Fund established for Vernon Hills girl who survived crash that killed family

Tribune reporter

Rinka Hirayama was a cheerful 9-year-old before the accident that took the lives of her parents and brother — and she still is, those who know her say.

Rinka suffered a broken arm and internal bleeding in the crash that killed the rest of her family on March 28 in Arizona, said Dennis Fitzgerald, a spokesman for Yaskawa America, the company for which her father worked in Waukegan. She was hospitalized in critical condition but has recovered and has returned to her home in Vernon Hills with her grandparents from Japan, he said.

“Everyone says she’s just a bright, bubbly, happy girl and is just very full of life,” Fitzgerald said. “She seems to be trying to get back to normal.”

In response to the tragedy, Yaskawa announced Tuesday that it has set up Rinka’s Fund to provide assistance for the girl’s recovery and future.

During spring break, Rinka was with her family in a rental car near the Grand Canyon when they were hit by an oncoming pickup truck that authorities said crossed the center of two-lane road. The crash killed Rinka’s father, Tomohiro “Bruce” Hirayama, 50; her mother, Sachiyo, 42; and her brother, Yuki, a 16-year-old sophomore at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. The pickup truck overturned and burst into flames, killing the two people inside despite efforts to get them out, police said.

At the time of the crash, the pickup was being chased by Navajo Nation police, who said they had followed it for about 20 miles on eastbound U.S. 160 after receiving complaints that it was being driven recklessly in Tuba City.

Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety Captain Harry Sombrero said police were investigating the chain of events leading up to the crash, but they have not released any further information.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety identified the people killed in the pickup truck as driver Kee Brown, 50, and Lee Tohannie, 70, both of Cow Springs, AZ, not far from the scene of the crash.

Rinka, who spent some time living in Europe with her family before they moved to the Chicago area last April, appears to be recovering well, Fitzgerald said. Doctors recommended that she return to Half Day School in Lincolnshire to finish the school year; then her grandparents plan to bring her back to Japan, he added.

Officials at Yaskawa, which makes electric controls and robots, are hoping to hold a memorial, and officials at Half Day School said volunteers stood ready to help the family, but were waiting to hear from relatives about what would be appropriate.

Rinka’s third-grade classmates have sent her stacks of get-well cards with images of some of her favorite things, like dogs, anime and baton twirlers, her teacher, Amy Joseph said.

“Even in the midst of such a tragic event, my heart is lifted by the caring spirit of so many people both in and out of our District 103 community who have reached out to offer their help and condolences,” Joseph said. “Rinka is always in my thoughts.”

Donations to may be made to Rinka’s Fund by credit card at or by mail to Rinka’s Fund, c/o Yaskawa America, Inc., 2121 Norman Drive South, Waukegan, IL 60085.

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