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Riverhead man remembered as ‘joy and light’ after fatal crash Labor Day weekend

Denise Caban watched a video of her son’s friends who gathered to remember him last week. About 30 people participated, each one someone whom her son, Derek Cruz, had personally helped at one point in his life.

“His friends would describe him as being joy and light,” Ms. Caban said.

The mother remembered her son, who died Labor Day weekend in a single-car crash, for his welcoming, warm demeanor and giving spirit, as well as the positive impact he left on his different communities. Mr. Cruz was 27.

“He was very friendly,” Ms. Caban said. “He always looked for that person that was by themselves, was shy, he would go sit with them and talk to them and try and get to know them.”

Ms. Caban said she was touched to see the video of her son’s friends at the vigil held Thursday night.

Riverhead police were notified of the crash at about 5:30 a.m. Sept. 3. Mr. Cruz’s vehicle had veered off Osborn Avenue, south of Honey Lane, and struck a tree. The vehicle caught fire.

After Riverhead Fire Department volunteers pulled him from the vehicle, Mr. Cruz was transported to Peconic Bay Medical Center, where he succumbed to his injuries, police said.

Mr. Cruz was born in Queens, which was “his favorite place to be,” his mother said. He was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, she said.

Mr. Cruz was the eldest of her three sons. He is survived by his younger brothers, Edwin Vasquez and Jaime Vasquez.

Mr. Cruz and his family moved from New York to Mississippi in 2009, but he began to feel homesick for New York and moved back in 2017.

A picture of Mr. Cruz taped on the tree at the crash site. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

“He always wanted to go back to New York,” Edwin Vasquez said. “He felt like New York fit his personality, which it did because of the hustle and bustle and how adventurous and everything he was, and how he could never stay in one place.”

Mr. Cruz lived in Riverhead and was a welder by trade. His family said he was a hard worker.

He worked at Peconic Ironworks in Riverhead for five years. He most recently worked with North East Bus Rebuilders in Ronkonkoma and he had also worked as a valet for Bell & Anchor in Sag Harbor.

Growing up, Mr. Vasquez’s relationship with his older brother wasn’t always great, but he said they became close as they grew and matured.

“We didn’t have the best relationship at first, but eventually as we got older, we matured and understood one another,” Mr. Vasquez said. “And we were really close.”

Mr. Vasquez, who now lives in Colorado, said that his brother wouldn’t want his family to be sad during the tragedy.

“We never really talked about that or what happened if he would die, but he knew that if he were to go, he didn’t want us to be sad, he wanted us to be happy,” he said.

Ms. Caban said she couldn’t believe it was real when she heard the news from her local police department in Mississippi. 

“It was devastating for us … I know that he’s with God, he’s in a better place,” she said.

She said she wasn’t sure what exactly transpired on the night of the crash, but said her son had been with some friends and co-workers for a farewell gathering for a friend traveling back to their native country.

In the days after the crash, friends created a memorial at the site with flowers, candles and mementos. His picture was taped to a tree, tied with purple ribbon.

The family held a wake for Mr. Cruz Monday at Coopola-Migliore Funeral Chapel in Corona, Queens. On Tuesday, Mr. Cruz will be making his final journey to Mississippi where the family will hold a funeral service and burial, his mother said.