SYRACUSE — The death of a 14-year-old boy who was killed crossing the street in front of Syracuse Junior High drew hundreds to the school Wednesday evening to remember him as a dedicated athlete who wasn't too cool to give hugs and tell people how much they meant to him.
The tragedy also has spurred Syracuse to improve safety on the dark street with lights to alert drivers to pedestrians.
At the vigil, classmates and others released purple and yellow balloons into the air, cheering a last time for the wrestler and football player with freckles and red hair. Dakota Kilburn remained a die-hard Minnesota Vikings fan even though friends and teachers teased him for it, they said.
"Football season won't be the same without him," said Syracuse Police Chief Garret Atkin, a family friend who recalled chatting with Dakota during neighborhood touch football games.
"We watched him grow into the type of man who made his family, friends and community proud," Atkin said as he fought back sobs.
Atkin spoke for Dakota's family, saying they have no ill will toward the drivers in the accident and hope more people will try to be alert to pedestrians.
The teen was crossing from the junior high Monday about 8:30 p.m. when a southbound car struck him, sending him into oncoming traffic and pinning him under a PT Cruiser, Syracuse police said.
Bystanders lifted the front of the car to free the boy. A medical helicopter flew him to Primary Children's Hospital, where he died from his injuries Tuesday morning, authorities said.
The junior high crosswalk on 2000 West has no traffic lights. But that will change soon.
The city is working with state administrators to speed the timeline on a plan to install lights bordering the crosswalk between the junior high and elementary schools on the busy two-lane road, Syracuse Mayor Terry Palmer said in a Facebook comment on the Syracuse Citizens page Wednesday. Palmer said the construction will begin as soon as school is out for summer on the crosswalk, which is now known as "Dakota's Crossing."
When someone crosses on foot, "there's nothing there that would alert anyone, other than the white marks on the ground" and a pedestrian crossing sign, Syracuse police detective Erin Behm said.
According to Behm, 15 accidents in the last five years have been reported on the crosswalk in front of Syracuse Junior High School. Monday's was the only fatal collision in that timeframe.
The road is managed by state transportation officials. A mile north, the crosswalk in front of Syracuse High School spans a city road and is flanked with lights.
Police are not releasing details about the crash as an investigation plays out. The two drivers involved are cooperating with police, Behm said, and no charges had been filed as of Wednesday.
Behm estimates more than 400 people attended the vigil.
One classmate holding a candle in the crowd was Zoe Cole, 15. Cole said she was Dakota's wrestling manager last year, and that the boy "was always a friend."
Cole approves of the new lights to alert drivers when walkers are crossing the busy road. "I think they should have done it sooner."
Dakota's cousin, Hollie Halacy, 47, traveled from her home near Las Vegas to attend Wednesday. She and Dakota had a special bond as the only Vikings fans in their extended family, she said.
"He was my biggest cheerleader" after a diagnosis of Lupus forced Halacy to undergo low doses of chemotherapy and spend decades in and out of a wheelchair.
She held up her phone with a recent text she received from Dakota.
"You're amazing just the way you are," the teen wrote. "When I get the money you and me are going to a Vikings game."
A fundraising page has been set up to help Dakota's family cover funeral expenses.