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updated: 4/2/2014 9:16 AM

Local residents, businesses help Vernon Hills family after deadly crash

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  • Yuki Hirayama

    Yuki Hirayama

  • Yaskawa America Inc. in Waukegan, where 50-year-old Tomohiro Hirayama worked as the vice president of motion control business planning & marketing for the U.S. subsidiary of Japan-based Yaskawa Electric Corp.

      Yaskawa America Inc. in Waukegan, where 50-year-old Tomohiro Hirayama worked as the vice president of motion control business planning & marketing for the U.S. subsidiary of Japan-based Yaskawa Electric Corp.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Tomohiro Hirayama

    Tomohiro Hirayama
    Courtesy of Yaskawa America Inc.


Stunned co-workers and even neighbors who didn't know the Hirayamas were poised Tuesday to help in the aftermath of a crash in Arizona that took the lives of three members of the Vernon Hills family.

"We're trying to be in tune with the family coming over (from Japan) -- what are their wishes -- and to be in tune with those wishes," said Dennis Fitzgerald, vice president of customer satisfaction for Yaskawa America's U.S. headquarters in Waukegan where 50-year-old Tomohiro Hirayama worked.

"We have not experienced anything like this as a company," Fitzgerald said.

Hirayama, his wife, Sachiyo, 42, and son, Yuki, 16, were killed Friday night north of Flagstaff, Ariz., when a pickup being chased by police crossed into oncoming traffic and hit the rented van in which the family was riding during their spring break trip. The pickup exceeded 100 mph during the chase on the two-lane highway, and the two people in the truck also died, police said.

Nine-year-old Rinka Hirayama, a student at Half Day School in Lincolnshire, survived and remained hospitalized Tuesday afternoon in fair condition at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Her grandparents traveled from Japan to be with her. Company representatives, including her father's best friend, also went to Arizona.

"We're heartbroken this young girl will go forward without her family," Fitzgerald said. "We are first focusing on the daughter and helping out with that process."

Fitzgerald said Tomohiro Hirayama is best remembered for embracing life in the U.S. and that the family took every opportunity to explore their surroundings and travel the country.

Based on tourism materials police recovered, the family was visiting the Grand Canyon, northern Arizona and Nevada, Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Raul Garcia said.

The company is working with the family to honor the lives of those killed in the crash, and a memorial fund to assist in the care of Rinka is being established.

Lincolnshire-Prairie View Elementary District 103 Superintendent Scott Warren said he did not know her personally but was told Rinka was "just a wonderful little girl."

"It's still a developing process," Warren said of possible fundraising or other efforts to assist.

The family moved into a rented a house in the Stone Fence Farm neighborhood on the south end of Vernon Hills before the start of the current school year and were said not to have close family in the U.S. Even neighbors who lived nearby said they didn't know the family and that perhaps the brutal winter that kept everyone under wraps was a factor.

"It was just absolutely shocking. We couldn't believe it," said Tim Murphy, who lives across the street from the family but didn't know them. He said he learned of the accident when Vernon Hills police came to the neighborhood asking if anyone knew of any family contacts.

"They lived behind me and I never met them, sadly," said Jeff Steybe, treasurer of the Stone Fence Farm homeowners association. Steybe said he has been coordinating emails from neighbors.

"There's been a lot of local concern. Whatever we can do to help, and I know the schools (Half Day School and Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire) are doing the same thing," he said.

"We have people who want to help. We're waiting for direction on what will happen," he said. "It's sickening. It's so very sad something like this would happen."

Tomohiro Hirayama was the vice president of motion control business planning & marketing for the U.S. subsidiary of Japan-based Yaskawa Electric Corp. The company is a worldwide leader in precision equipment used in industrial automation technologies, including robot products, sold here under the Motoman name.

Hirayama was described as friendly and energetic and was considered a "vital member" of the management team. He had worked for the company for 28 years, with assignments around the world including Denmark, Germany and Japan. Most of his career, he was involved in various capacities in overseas sales, according to Fitzgerald.

He came to the U.S. last year for a position at Yaskawa's national headquarters in Waukegan, where he oversaw sales activities and was a key link to the home office in Japan for the motion part of the business, Fitzgerald said. Motion control is the core technology of robotics and other technologies such as microchips and food packaging.

Yaskawa employs about 1,000 in Waukegan and 13,000 worldwide.

Hirayama's role was as a "window" to the home office.

"He was one of the key communications guys for the motion group back to Japan," Fitzgerald said.

He possessed great language skills and an appreciation of other cultures, Fitzgerald said.

"He was a great guy. Anybody who can speak multiple languages and communicate well (in multiple languages) has to be an extrovert," he said.

Arizona authorities are still trying to identify the two people killed in the pickup truck, which had an Arizona license plate. They were burned beyond recognition when it rolled and caught fire after the collision on U.S. 160 about 25 miles northeast of Tuba City, state Department of Public Safety spokesman Raul Garcia said.

The pickup crossed the centerline while being pursued by Navajo Police Department officers after 911 callers said it was being driven erratically in Tuba City, according to Garcia.

"It refused to stop," Garcia said of the pickup truck.

Navajo DPS Capt. Harry Sombrero said Navajo police were in pursuit of the suspect vehicle for about 20 miles before the crash occurred.

At the time of the crash, Garcia said the closest Navajo police unit pursuing the pickup was more than a mile back because of safety considerations and highway traffic that widened the gap.

By the time officers got to the scene, the pickup was fully engulfed in flames, said Sgt. Gary Phelps, another DPS spokesman.

Sombrero said Arizona DPS was in the process of reconstructing the accident scene.

"The chain of events and point of impact is still being determined," Sombrero said. "This will at least be a two-week investigation."

• Daily Herald staff writer Russell Lissau and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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