The death of 18-year-old tourist Alyssa Elsman, who authorities say was mowed down along in Times Square on Thursday, has stunned her family

By Harriet Sokmensuer
May 18, 2017 05:49 PM

The death of 18-year-old tourist Alyssa Elsman, who authorities say was hit by a car in Times Square on Thursday along with nearly two dozen other pedestrians, has stunned her family.

“We’re shocked,” says one relative, who asked to remain unidentified. “I mean, at first we didn’t believe this was all real until I got online and looked [it] up.”

Elsman’s family tells PEOPLE she, her 13-year-old sister and their mother were walking through the bustling tourist destination at the heart of New York City shortly before noon when a 2009 Honda Accord mounted the sidewalk and struck the siblings and 21 others.

Minutes before her death, Elsman shared a picture of Times Square on her Instagram story. She also appeared to have visited before, posting a picture of herself at the intersection of 47th Street and Broadway in April 2016.

Elsman, a native of Southwest Michigan, died at the scene. It is unclear at this time what condition her sister is in, though four of the injured are in critical condition, according to officials.

Elsman also has a 16-year-old brother, the relative says, but he is believed not to have been at the scene.

Alyssa Elsman
Alyssa Elsman/Facebook
The scene of a deadly crash in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday.
Seth Wenig/AP

“She was a very loving, loving little girl,” the family member recalls of Elsman.

“She looked out for her younger siblings [and] would always play with them,” the relative says, noting that they hardly argued.

Elsman’s father is on his way to N.Y.C. from Portage, Michigan, according to the relative.

“It’s disturbing,” the relative says. “I’m still trying to piece it all together.”

• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.

Police said Thursday afternoon that a suspect has been arrested in connection with the deadly crash: 26-year-old Richard Rojas, a former member of the U.S. Navy.

“Preliminary investigation reveals that Rojas has two arrests … for DWI,” N.Y.C. Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said at a Thursday news conference.

The scene of a deadly crash in New York City’s Times Square on Thursday.
Source: FDNY/Twitter

Rojas was being tested for alcohol and drugs, authorities said.

It was not immediately clear if he has been formally charged, entered a plea or retained an attorney.

Police say Rojas drove onto the sidewalk on the west side of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street and then continued at a high speed to 45th Street, striking pedestrians as he drove. His car came to a stop when it collided with a metal obstruction.

“We all feel deeply right now for those who are injured and for their families and [in] particular the family of the young woman who was lost,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday. “Our prayers are with her family and all those who are right now suffering because of this horrible incident.”