What was meant to be a day of celebration turned to one of sorrow for a young girl after her father, Philadelphia Police Sgt. Rafael Ali, died on her 10th birthday.
Sgt. Ali finished his shift in Nicetown’s 39th District at 6 p.m. on Saturday, officials said.
That’s the last time anyone in the police department saw him.
Ali, police said, was driving southbound on Henry Avenue near Dupont Street in Roxborough shortly after 11:30 p.m. Saturday when he lost control of his 2014 Dodge Ram at a curve, mounted the center median and crashed into a tree.
The pickup truck was crushed. Firefighters had to extricate Ali, 32, who investigators said was wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash, from the driver’s seat.
Ali, a father of two who spent 10 years working as a police officer, died less than an hour later. He was pronounced dead at 12:20 a.m. at Albert Einstein Medical Center. His daughter turned 10 on Sunday while his son is 8-years-old.
At a news conference Sunday afternoon, Accident Investigation District Capt. John Wilczynski said investigators have determined that speed played a major role in the crash. He said there was no indication that alcohol was involved.
Wilczynski said investigators are theorizing that Ali, who worked a 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift in the 39th District on Saturday, may have fallen asleep at the wheel. He said there is no evidence that he hit the brakes at all as his truck mounted a median at a curve near Dupont Street and then traveled about 150 feet on grass before striking the tree.
“You can speculate he fell asleep. That’s what our investigators are thinking,” Wilczynski said. “Henry Avenue, where that turns right there, if you continue straight, you would mount that grass median. That’s a possibility of course, [that he fell asleep], but we can’t prove it. The vehicle did not skid.”
“Normally someone would hit a brake, swerve, so it’s just a thought he might’ve fallen asleep,” the captain continued.
Wilczynski said Ali was critically injured on impact, but that he stayed alive for a brief period until medics took him to Albert Einstein Medical Center. There, the young officer, who resided in East Oak Lane not a far drive from where the crash occurred, died as a result of his injuries.
Wilczynski said police are unsure where Ali was traveling at the time of the crash, and that his last known contact with anyone from the police department was when he left work about 6 p.m. Saturday.
A routine autopsy will be performed on Ali’s body to rule out the possibility that any medical problems or substances are to blame for the crash, Wilczynski said. “We’re really at a loss to understand what happened,” he added.
Wilczynski said investigators are unsure at this point how fast Ali’s truck was traveling, but that it’s clear it was “well over” the posted 35 mph speed limit. He cautioned drivers that speeding on Henry Avenue is a constant problem and warned people to slow down on the curvy road that cuts through Northwest Philadelphia.
Ali’s commander, Philadelphia Police Lieutenant Tracy Thomas, spoke to NBC10 about the type of man Ali was.
“A dedicated family person,” Thomas said. “He was an example of how we want our police supervisors to be.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Ali’s neighbor Priscilla Chandler.
“He loved his children,” said Chandler. “Always had them here playing back and forth. Very friendly with the neighbors.”
Melvin Booker, another neighbor, described a time when Ali came to his aid.
“I got in an accident on Henry Avenue,” Booker said. “A guy cut me off and my tire blew. He stopped by and helped me change it. He was just awesome.”
A year ago this month, the 39th District lost another officer to an off-duty crash. Officer Seth Stellfox was riding his Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle home after a cross-country trip when he fatally crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Cumberland County Aug. 12, 2014. He was 33.