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Community grieving for Whitehall family after zoo tragedy

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Strangers — some who live just a few blocks away and others from halfway across the world — are showing support for a Whitehall family whose young son was killed by African painted dogs on Sunday.

Maddox Derkosh, 2, fell from a railing at an observation deck and into the exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, where he was mauled to death by several of the 11 dogs inside.

Police said Elizabeth Derkosh, 33, lifted her son up to allow him to stand on a wooden railing in the viewing gazebo, moments before he fell through the opening, bounced off a safety net below and landed in the open yard of the exhibit. Pittsburgh homicide detectives continue to investigate.

Visitation is scheduled for 2 to 8 p.m. today at William Slater II Funeral Service, 1660 Greentree Road, Scott Township. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Bernard Church, 311 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.

The family is asking that instead of flowers, people send toy construction trucks, which will be donated to a children's Christmas charity.

On the quiet, winding road in Whitehall where Maddox lived, neighbors and friends tried to focus on the image of a cute little boy in red glasses, pulled in a red wagon by his doting parents, Jason and Elizabeth.

“They went nowhere without Maddox,” said next-door neighbor Rachel Majcher, 33, a high school classmate of Elizabeth's. “I cannot image the dark cloud that is following them.”

Relatives who gathered at the Derkoshes' Highgrove Road home declined comment.

Zoo CEO Barbara Baker described the first fatality involving a visitor in the Highland Park facility's 114-year history as the zoo's “worst nightmare.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to that family,” she said.

The zoo reopened Tuesday, “so visitors can pay their respects,” Baker said.

People from across the world have turned to social media to share their thoughts about the incident and pay respects to the family.

This, too, has become a way for people to rally together to show support for the Derkoshes — through Facebook groups created by local moms.

A negative comment on Facebook about the Derkosh family saddened Kristin Nock of Pittsburgh, who leads the nonprofit Brentwood PALS group.

Nock, 25, who nearly lost her baby while pregnant, said she had trouble sleeping the night after Maddox's death as she thought about what the family must be going through and prayed about a way she could help. She wanted to do something to show support.

“I wanted them to know that there are good people out there,” Nock said. “I just really wanted to start something positive.”

The following morning, she started a Facebook group — R.I.P. Maddox Derkosh — and created a PayPal account, with the intention of raising money to pay for the funeral.

“I felt really compelled to do something for the family,” Nock said.

Nock, who has two young children, said she started the group with the goal of raising $3,000 to cover funeral costs.

She has been in touch with the family and the funeral was covered through another donation, Nock said.

The response has been “amazing,” said Nock, who plans to keep the PayPal account open for the foreseeable future.

As of Thursday morning, more than $15,600 had been raised and donations were no longer being accepted, Nock posted on Facebook. All of the money will go to the family, she said. She also is gathering cards to send to the family. An account also has been set up at Citizen's Bank, where cash gifts can be made at any location.

A family member of the Derkoshes has posted on the Facebook page, Nock said, noting she had spoken with family members as well, who have given their backing to the page and fund-raising. His comment states that the positive remarks from the community and outreach are helping the family get through the tragedy.

People who live nearby the Derkoshes, even those that don't know them, said they are searching for ways to help.

Mothers of children attending St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin School, located two blocks from the Derkosh family home, also started a Facebook page — Peace and Prayers for Maddox, where there are more than 230 members — and have raised nearly $600 through a FundRazr account in hopes of buying gift cards for the family or giving them funds in whatever way is needed, said Jennifer Gannon, 38, a mother of four, who lives a few streets over from the Derkoshes.

As Gannon looks around her home, filled with toys for her four young boys between the ages of 1 and 6 years old, she said she imagines the loneliness now in the Derkosh home without Maddox.

“You just think of them going home with all of those toys everywhere (and him not being there),” she said.

And it's important for the family to know they're not alone as they go through this, Gannon said. That's why the mother's from St. Gabe's started the Facebook group.

“It just shows that moms and our little community support them,” Gannon said. “This is so she knows that there's people behind her.”

Staff writers Margaret Harding, Bob Bauder, Bill Vidonic and Laura Van Wert contributed.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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