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Teen crash victim had an 'old soul'

Community mourns loss of Taija Lyn Belwood
by: John Brewington,

The bright smile and kindness of Taija Lyn Belwood were recurrent themes during a candlelight vigil held in memorial for the Warren teen on Thursday night, three days after the Scappoose High School senior died in a car wreck.

'The things that continually came up were her smile and her kindness,' said Tammy Belwood, Taija's mother, the morning after the vigil. 'She was just amazing, kind of an old soul beyond her years.'

Other memories included accounts from Taija's peers of her compassion toward newcomers at the school, herself only a few years removed from that experience after her family moved to Warren from Hillsboro in 2003.

Taija was discovered dead in her car on Monday after it had apparently slid off an icy patch on Cornelius Pass Road and over an embankment, rolling onto its roof into a fast-running creek.

Don Newman and his fiancée, Jeannie Rudloff, discovered the accident scene around 4 p.m. and called the fire department. The couple had been vigilant for signs of roadside distress in light of the disappearance of Newman's 77-year-old Northwest Logie Road neighbor, Sterling Blades.

'It was on our mind,' Newman said of Blades' disappearance. 'We hadn't been looking, but we saw the skid marks and that's why we stopped to investigate.'

Instead of evidence of the missing Blades, the couple found Taija's 1996 Mazda MX6 sedan over the embankment and partially submerged. The accident scene is on a flat-running stretch of Cornelius Pass Road located around a half-mile southwest of Highway 30.

Newman said it was unclear when the accident took place.

'We couldn't tell. All we know is that the engine was cold. We couldn't tell,' he said. Newman said Taija was wearing her seatbelt.

A memorial service for Taija took place Saturday morning in the Scappoose High School gymnasium, echoing attendance levels of more than 500 people experienced at the Thursday vigil.

Taija's death has called into question the safety of Cornelius Pass Road, which is fraught with narrow, winding passages lacking in guardrail protection. Adding to the danger is the steady presence of freight trucks that use Cornelius Pass Road as one of the only direct connections between Highway 30 and Hillsboro to the southwest.

Tammy said she is frustrated that the perils of Cornelius Pass Road are widely recognized, though there is little action underway to reduce its hazards.

'That's the really sad part, is that everybody knows it, but nothing is being done about it,' she said.

Taija was planning to attend Southern Oregon University in the fall. Her immediate goals were big, but selfless: She wanted to become a teacher and to travel to Africa, where she would work with children.

'She had such big plans, and she wanted to do it in Africa, but if she didn't have the money to do it in Africa, she wanted to do it here,' Tammy said. 'She always had big plans.'

Taija's sister, Erica, was in London, England, at the time of the accident, performing as a cheerleader in that country's New Year's Day parade. The family withheld informing Erica about her sister until after she had returned to Oregon on Wednesday, Jan. 2.

'We didn't really want to tell her the news with no one over there she really knew,' Tammy said, adding that telling Erica was one of the hardest things she has ever had to do as a parent. 'The look on her face, it was heartbreaking.'