Utah Izvuk had an endearingly sheepish way of greeting her best friend’s dad every time he came home and found the Rhawnhurst teen in his living room watching TV or in his kitchen devouring a light snack.
“I would say, ‘You’re here again?’ And she would say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” recalled Tony Laforet, whose daughter Dana first met Utah six years ago when they were sixth-grade classmates at Woodrow Wilson Middle School.
Tony Laforet’s indignation wasn’t real. It was only a show, an inside joke between him and a young lady whom he considered to be part of his own family.
The Izvuk, Laforet and Northeast High School families all lost a beloved daughter on Feb. 17 when Utah died in a pre-dawn, single-car crash in Bustleton. Utah, a 17-year-old senior at Northeast High, was the lone passenger in a 1995 Ford Explorer that struck a tree on Grant Avenue near Krewstown Road. She died at the scene.
“She was like my second daughter,” Tony Laforet said Saturday in an interview at the Country Club Diner. “I told Dana that I have to find another second daughter now and she said to me, ‘No, Dad, her number is retired.’ ”
The sports analogy was tragically appropriate as athletics were among Utah’s many interests. She played goalie on Northeast’s girls soccer team and played on the volleyball team. Her sister, Daisy, played both sports too, before graduating from Northeast High last spring.
As one of three children of Ukranian immigrant parents, Utah was known for her outgoing personality, contagious smile and queen-size stature. She stood almost 6 feet tall. Her given name was a shortened form of her mother’s name, Lyudmila, and also paid tribute to an aunt who lives in Latvia, Daisy said. She is also survived by her father, Roman, and a younger brother, Max.
Utah’s unusual name became a target for more kidding around with her surrogate family.
“We used to call her ‘U-small’ instead of ‘U-tall,’” said Debbie Laforet, Dana’s mom. “That made her laugh.”
“She felt like she could really be herself [with us],” said Dana Laforet, who attended Northeast High for a couple of years before registering with a “cyber” charter school.
Utah was a gifted student who studied in Northeast High’s magnet program, taking advanced math and science classes. She liked to draw and considered pursuing a career as a designer. When the Laforets moved into a new house a few years ago, Utah helped them decorate it. She applied her aesthetic sensibilities to her own appearance, too.
“She didn’t walk out of her room without her hair and nails done,” Dana Laforet said.
“She took hours with that,” agreed Daisy Izvuk, who described herself as the quiet one in her family. “She did that every day for school, too.”
“She had to look perfect,” Dana Laforet added. “Pink was her favorite color, hot pink.”
Neither the Laforet family, nor Daisy are really sure what happened to Utah on the morning of the crash. They don’t know much about the driver. Philadelphia police identified him only as a 19-year-old man who was hospitalized in “extremely critical” condition with undisclosed injuries.
Authorities have not released his name nor an updated report on his condition. Police said that excessive speed may have been a factor in the crash. No criminal charges have been filed.
“It happened out of nowhere, just random,” Daisy Izvuk said.
Utah had been living with the family of her long-time boyfriend, who was not involved in the crash. Utah apparently had stopped at a friend’s house in the hours leading up to the crash and had left her purse there, so she did not have her identification at the time of the accident.
Daisy was at home with her parents, who primarily speak Ukranian, later that morning when word reached them that Utah may have been hurt. Eventually the family was called to identify her remains.
The Laforets learned of the tragedy at about 11 that morning. Dana and other close friends gathered at the Izvuk home and immediately resolved to help the victim’s parents, who are “traditional” and devout, the Laforets said.
In the ensuing days, the friends met regularly at the Laforet home to organize tributes to Utah.
“[We] were saying we have to do something for her,” Dana Laforet said. “Somebody said we have to do T-shirts. … One guy designed it. Another set it up. And I got people to make them.”
Joe Long Awards and J.P. Tees both donated goods or services, said Tony Laforet, a former Philadelphia police K-9 officer who knew Long from the businessman’s many contributions to police-affiliated fundraisers.
“Joe said [to me] that when someone’s down, you stick out your hand and help them out,” Laforet said.
The shirts are pink or purple, Utah’s two favorite colors. One side depicts a cross, wings, Utah’s name and the dates of her birth and death. The other side has a slogan declaring that “No Vikings Get Left Behind or Forgotten,” a reference to the Northeast High nickname.
About 200 shirts were sold. All proceeds are meant to help offset funeral expenses. Also, Utah’s friends plan to sell pink and purple ribbons in school.
Utah herself never hesitated to help her friends in need. When Dana had knee surgery and was wheelchair-bound as a sophomore, Utah helped her throughout her rehabilitation.
“Utah pushed her around for weeks,” Debbie Laforet said. “She took her to get tutoring and took her to therapy. She walked for her and walked with her and basically taught her to walk. We used to say she was [Dana’s] guardian angel.”
Although Izvuk’s grieving parents, Roman and Lyudmila, wished not to speak publicly about Utah’s death, they asked that this biblical passage be printed in her memory:
“The Lord gave and now He’s taken away. May His name be praised.” — Job 1:21. ••