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Whitehall woman killed in Iowa interstate crash

| Monday, Aug. 16, 2010

A Southeast Asia refugee who fled to Pittsburgh two years ago to escape ethnic persecution was one of six people killed in a crash in Iowa this weekend.

Toh Toh, 19, of Whitehall was a passenger in a minivan that crashed along Interstate 80 about 11 a.m. Saturday just east of Des Moines. Toh was traveling west with six others age 6 to 28 to visit family.

Four people in the 2002 Honda Odyssey were killed, including a 6-year-old child whom Iowa state police did not identify. Police identified the two adult victims besides Toh as Hai Seu Moo, 18, of Albany, N.Y.; and Ba Du La, 20, of Utica, N.Y.

The driver of the van, Do Taw, 19, of Utica, N.Y., and two passengers were taken to nearby hospitals. One of those victims, a 14-year-old whom police would not identify, is from Pittsburgh, said Kelly O'Brien, spokeswoman for Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh, which works with local refugees, including Toh. The teenager was reported to be in critical condition. The other injured minivan passenger was identified as Ku Lu, 28, of Utica.

Police believe Taw dozed off while driving west on the interstate. The Odyssey struck a semi-trailer before spinning out of control, crossing the median and slamming head-on into an eastbound vehicle, police said. Both people in the eastbound Toyota — Kenneth Payetta, 41, of Whitby, Ontario, and a 16-year-old passenger whose name was not released — were killed.

"We're very saddened by this news of a young person who was representing her community so well," O'Brien said. Toh was one of 24 teens and young adults enrolled in a Jewish Family & Children's Service program to help young refugees become familiar with American culture and the workplace.

Toh recently started her first American job at Sognatore Salon Downtown, where she greeted and shampooed customers. O'Brien said Toh had an eye for style. Toh loved fashion and clothes and was excited to use her paychecks from the salon to expand her wardrobe. She had been considering becoming a beautician one day.

"She was a quiet young woman but was really coming into herself," O'Brien said. "She was really thriving this summer. It was a really incredible experience for her."

Toh, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, was attending Baldwin High School to help improve her English. She moved to Whitehall in July 2008 with her parents and younger brother from Myanmar, the Southeast Asia country formerly known as Burma. She was featured in a July 26 Tribune-Review article on the Jewish Family & Children's Service program. At the time, her supervisor, Zoe Lincoln, said Toh was sweet, always smiling and eager to learn about the beauty business.

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