UI student who died was 'sweet, enthusiastic, smart'
URBANA — A small pile of orange carnations lay on the sidewalk along Lincoln Avenue Thursday, the beginnings of a memorial to a promising University of Illinois agribusiness student killed by a pickup truck that ran off the road.
Mimi Liu, 20, a UI junior from Chicago, died Wednesday morning after being struck by a pickup as she walked down the sidewalk near the UI's McKinley Health Center, 1109 S. Lincoln Ave., U. A second student was injured by the same truck but was hospitalized in good condition Thursday.
The driver, Willie Craft Sr., 58, of the 1200 block of West Hill Street, Urbana, was issued traffic tickets for improper lane usage and driving without insurance for the time being, but police continue to investigate the accident, Urbana police Sgt. Dan Morgan said.
Ms. Liu had just transferred this semester from the UI's Division of General Studies into the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences to prepare for a career in agribusiness. She was majoring in agricultural and consumer economics, with a concentration in agribusiness markets and management, said Kathy Martensen, assistant dean for academic programs in the College of ACES.
"She seemed like a very sweet and enthusiastic student. It's just very, very tragic," Martensen said.
Her academic adviser, Jessa Barnard, said Ms. Liu was a "very smart student, very good at math and science," and had worked hard to get admitted to the program. Ms. Liu had always been interested in business and economics and at one point considered a concentration in accounting, Barnard said.
Ms. Liu "dove in" to her new major, signing up for Barnard's career prep course and taking advantage of the opportunity to network with speakers brought in from the agribusiness industry, she said. Just last week, Ms. Liu participated in the college's career fair and was excited about her prospects in sales, marketing or corporate finance, she said.
"She just really felt so confident about some of the conversations she'd had with some of the recruiters about her future," Barnard said.
Ms. Liu was proficient in four languages — English, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin — and had been exploring the idea of a master's degree.
"She had such a bright future ahead of her," Barnard said. "Overall, she was just a kind person, just a lovely patient demeanor. It's really unfortunate and sad that it's happened to someone so innocent, someone who was so excited and taking so much initiative."
A talented musician, Ms. Liu had been involved with the Chinese Fine Arts Society in Chicago since 2003, Barnard said.
She was a member of the Asian American Student Association and the Minority Business Students Association, which honored her last April as its "most outstanding member," according to her profile on Linked In. She was also a member of Illini Guides, a group of students who help new students move in to campus.
The second student injured in the accident, Spandana Mantravadi, is also a UI junior, majoring in finance in the College of Business. She was listed in good condition Thursday at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.
The two women, who did not know each other, were walking on the sidewalk near McKinley just before 10 a.m. Wednesday when they were hit by the southbound pickup truck.
Sgt. Dan Morgan said Craft's driving had attracted attention moments before he made his way to that busy area of campus.
Morgan said Craft was first spotted driving erratically on Lincoln Avenue at Fairview Avenue, which is about 14 city blocks north of Nevada Street where the accident scene started.
He hit a curb on Lincoln at Fairview, deflating a tire, but did not stop, Morgan said. One witness posted a comment on the social media site "Reddit" saying he saw the truck driving with a "shredded" tire.
"He continued on to Nevada and Lincoln where he again struck a curb on the west side of the street," Morgan said. "Then he veers on to the sidewalk on the west side, drives down the sidewalk for a couple blocks, half on and half off, sideswiping a UI Facilities & Services truck. A couple blocks later he hits the pedestrians and proceeds on, on and off the sidewalk, until a point about 50 yards north of Pennsylvania on Lincoln."
The pickup truck came to rest headed south against a retaining wall alongside Illini Grove.
Craft was taken to Carle Hospital, where he submitted to blood and urine tests but Morgan declined to share any other details of his condition at the time they talked to him.
The driver of the UI truck was not injured, said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler.
Craft is a former UI civil service employee, retiring in 2010, Kaler said. He signed on as an hourly extra-help employee in August 2012 but was never called for work, Kaler said.
Scores of pedestrians, drivers and bicyclists witnessed the accident and its aftermath, watching as emergency crews treated Mantravadi and tried to revive Ms. Liu.
The women were hit on the west side of Lincoln, just north of McKinley and across the street from Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, 1106 S. Lincoln Ave.
Sorority member Morgan Eifler was awakened by a loud noise and then people yelling, and rushed outside to see what had happened.
She saw one woman lying face-down in the street, in the right-hand lane, and another woman who was "in much worse shape" on the sidewalk. Eifler was afraid to move them, and a squad car arrived almost immediately, she said.
Emergency crews started CPR on the second woman right away, and staff members from McKinley Health Center also rushed out to help, she said.
"I was just so panicked. I didn't know who it was. I know a lot of people here and next door" at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, she said.
The girl in the street was initially unconscious but then woke up, crying, Eifler said.
"I just felt so sick to my stomach about it," she said. "I had a test that day. It's been on my mind. I'm so sad for their families."
Eifler said sorority members planned to add some candles to the makeshfit memorial on Lincoln.
"It's just heartbreaking," she said.
The accident also has made her think more about safety. Eifler said one of her friends had to jump out of the pickup truck's path.
"I cross this street every day, all the time, walk these sidewalks," she said. "I always try to cross here without using a crosswalk. You don't even think about how dangerous that is, especially on this busy street. You definitely learn a lesson from it."
Several student organizations were considering ways Thursday to honor Ms. Liu with a memorial, Kaler said.
The UI also sent out a campus mass mail, offering services at the UI Counseling Center to anyone who needed it. The center ordinarily reaches out to those closest to the tragedy, but "this accident happened on a busy street when many people were walking to and from classes," wrote Rene Romano, vice chancellor for student affairs.
Staff writer Mary Schenk contributed to this report.