For a few minutes last Saturday night, Ana Pelaez had a FaceTime chat with close friend Sashalynn Rosa. Rosa, 23, was sitting in her car warming up with her two young children, as Rosa’s boyfriend dug out their snow-covered car during Winter Storm Jonas.
“She said the kids wanted to play outside,” Pelaez tells PEOPLE. “She said we might as well start taking snow off the car.”
In the few minutes they chatted, nothing seemed amiss. “She was fine and we hung up,” says Pelaez. “And then I got the news.”
As Rosa, 1-year-old Messiah and 3-year-old Saniyah sat in the white, four-door Mazda to warm up, a tailpipe clogged with snow was enabling deadly carbon monoxide to fill the car, according to officials.
About 10 to 20 minutes after entering the car, Rosa’s boyfriend and father of the two children knocked on one of the windows. They didn’t wake up and he opened the door to rouse them. “He couldn’t, he started yelling and screaming,” Passaic Mayor Alex Blanco told PEOPLE.
“It happened quick – in 10 or 15 minutes – and [carbon monoxide] doesn’t smell,” he adds. “There was no smoke inside the car that would have been a red flag for them.”
Sashalynn and Messiah died, while young Saniyah remains in “very critical” condition on a ventilator at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center,” Blanco says.
“[She’s] getting better – showed some brain activity,” he informed PEOPLE.
Pelaez, of nearby Clifton, wonders if she could have done anything to help her friend and her young son in the moments leading up to their tragic deaths.
“I feel bad. If I would’ve known, I would have been like, ‘Please, make sure your car is not on.’ I had no idea, she says.
Pelaez, 24, met Rosa in 10th grade at Clifton High School. “She was the type of person who could get along with anybody – anybody could have a conversation with her,” says Pelaez. “She was so easy-going.”
When Pelaez became pregnant and gave birth to her now 7-year-old daughter, Rosa “was always there, she says.
And then when Rosa became a mom, the pair and their children spent countless hours together visiting parks and Chuck E. Cheese’s – sharing meals and memories with their families.
“She was an amazing mom,” says Pelaez. “If you saw her, you saw her kids with her. She was never not with them.”
As was Bonilla, who works for a restaurant supply business, says Pelaez. “They were always together, it was never just one of them,” she says. “He was always with their kids. They were always a team.”
The pair was not married, but they lived together and had been a couple for many years, she says. “They’ve known each other since they were young kids,” Pelaez continues. “They were each other’s loves of their lives.”
Two nights ago, Pelaez went to the hospital and saw Bonilla and little Saniyah. “He’s strong,” Pelaez says of the grieving father. “He is being very strong. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I don’t know how, it must be through all the prayers.”
Rosa and Pelaez had dreams of one day working in a hospital. Rosa was in school to become a licensed practical nurse, and Pelaez is studying patient care. “We had goals,” she says. “We always spoke about it.”
The day before the snowstorm and the tragic deaths, Rosa had picked up Pelaez and brought her back to Passaic. The two friends talked for hours and Pelaez got to spend time with Messiah, nicknamed “Little Mo.” They also spent time with Rosa’s close, extended family. It was the first time the friends had seen each other in weeks, because Pelaez had been visiting family in Colombia.
“I was just so happy to see her,” she says. “I got to see little Mo and Messiah – I was so happy.”
Now, Pelaez is filled with unimaginable grief. “It’s just so hard to believe” she says. “I’m still in shock.”
Pelaez hopes that the deaths of Rosa and Messiah will educate others on the dangers of snow-filled tailpipes and how deadly it can be when a car is running.
“Me and my mom pray,” she adds, “and hope for better news right now.”