Family mourns teen killed in Ga. 400 crash, lauds civilians who saved passenger’s life

New Year’s Day wreck killed 18-year-old, injured girlfriend
Family and friends gathered recently to celebrate the life of Kealani Borba, an 18-year-old woman who died in a fiery crash along Ga. 400 on New Year's Day. (Matt Bruce /

Credit: Matt Bruce

Credit: Matt Bruce

Family and friends gathered recently to celebrate the life of Kealani Borba, an 18-year-old woman who died in a fiery crash along Ga. 400 on New Year's Day. (Matt Bruce /

The loss of a child is one of the most excruciating pains a parent can endure.

Robson Borba crumbled to the floor in anguish when that harsh fate befell him on New Year’s Day. Police came to his door and told him that his only daughter had died in a fiery crash on Ga. 400.

Just hours after she rang in 2022, Kealani Borba lost her life three months shy of her 19th birthday.

According to Atlanta police, Kealani was driving a Toyota Scion and merging onto I-85 South about 3 a.m. when she struck a concrete wall barrier that, according to witnesses, was partially obstructing the left lane.

It was not clear how the barrier wound up in the road, police said. The collision caused Kealani’s sedan to flip over and careen across the road, landing on its rooftop before it became engulfed in flames.

A group of passersby stopped and made a dramatic rescue, busting out windows and pulling Kealani’s 23-year-old girlfriend, Kelsey Chanthraboutda, from the burning vehicle. She was stable when EMS took her to Grady Memorial Hospital.

Flames overtook the car and it exploded before the good Samaritans were able to rescue Kealani. She died inside the vehicle.

Courtney Barcellos, a 37-year-old firefighter-paramedic from Midtown, was among those who helped save Chanthraboutda’s life. She and her girlfriend were driving home from a New Year’s party when they saw the crash.

Two other motorists had already pulled Chanthraboutda from the car. Barcellos and her girlfriend both jumped into action and helped clear the scene of bystanders, many of whom were recording the wreckage on their cellphones, she said. The couple then worked with the other rescuers to help stabilize Chanthraboutda. Barcellos remained by her side until paramedics arrived.

“I’m grateful that life put us there when we needed to be there, and linked us with other people who were courageous enough to run toward that car on fire and get (Chanthraboutda) out,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They tried to get Kealani out, but it was not safe. It was an incredibly dangerous scene.”

More than 100 loved ones gathered at the Chairs restaurant in downtown East Point last week for a tearful celebration of Kealani’s life. She was remembered as an adventurous world conqueror with a friendly disposition matched only by her larger-than-life personality.

“Kealani was the mayor of Atlanta. Let’s just make that very clear,” her father quipped. “She owned the city, she knew everybody everywhere we would go. In one year and a half.”

Kealani’s mother, Jessica Borba, detailed on Instagram the “indescribable” heartbreak of losing her daughter.

Two days after the crash, Jessica shared some of the final moments she had with Kealani. They played mini golf and the family ate dinner together on New Year’s Eve. She remembered Kealani being excited to go out dancing with friends and modeling dresses for her.

But her world changed forever the next morning.

“The knock on the door from the police on New Year’s Day will never not haunt me,” Jessica wrote on her Instagram page. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. My world went dark.”

Jessica, a fifth grade Atlanta Public Schools teacher, admitted she’s had moments of intense grief since Kealani’s death, finding herself on the floor crying and shaking.

“No one expects this,” she told those gathered at the vigil. “There’s no way that I would’ve got through this week without you.”

The Borba family moved to College Park from Minneapolis midway through 2020. They said Chairs became their favorite “greasy spot” where the family gathered to bond, play pool and enjoy a good meal.

“This is like a second home to us,” Robson said. “We felt safe here, we felt loved. We could come here and we started meeting all the local people.”

Kealani was an 18-year-old freshman at Georgia State University and planned to study physical therapy. She spoke fluent Portuguese and played several musical instruments.

Family members described her as a strong-willed, courageous girl with a fiery independent streak.

“She did not care what people thought,” Jessica recalled. “She was so true to herself all the time. It didn’t matter what situation she was in, she brought her entire self.”

At 16, Kealani worked to raise enough money to buy a ticket to her father’s native country of Brazil. She spent several months there visiting her uncle and grandparents and even attended a semester of classes.

“She was a free spirit. You could not hold her back,” said Kealani’s uncle, Eliel Borba, who still lives in Brazil. “She was just an outgoing person. She would make friends that didn’t even speak English; she didn’t care.”

While vigil attendees mourned Kealani’s loss, they reveled in the outpouring of love since the tragedy. In just a few days, supporters raised more than $25,000 on GoFundMe to cover the family’s funeral expenses.

“For me, it’s like blowing my mind to see all these people here. How much they love our family,” Eliel said. “Everyone that is here, it counts. It makes us warmer. Nothing’s going to change what happened and nothing’s going to fill the empty hole in our hearts. But today and every day since it happened, we are being recharged with the love of everyone here and all over the place.”

Kealani Borba (left) died in the Jan. 1 crash. Kelsey Chanthraboutda was also in the car when it crashed.

Credit: Matt Bruce

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Credit: Matt Bruce

Chanthraboutda attended the vigil. It was clear she’s still recovering from her injuries as she sat in a wheelchair with bandages on her hands.

Friends set up a GoFundMe page that sought $15,000 for Chanthraboutda’s medical expenses. By Thursday, it had raised about $6,500.

According to the crowdfunding campaign, Chanthraboutda lost consciousness during the crash. She inhaled smoke, suffered second- and third-degree burns and had to undergo surgery for a skin graft on her back.

“V, I love you so much,” Robson told her at the vigil, referring to her by her nickname. “You are part of my life forever, whether you like it or not. You’re on my arm, but most importantly you’re in my heart. And I’m glad that God spared one of my flowers to still be here. And I love you.”

Chanthraboutda often dabbed away tears. Family members said she was too emotional to speak with the media, but she has shared her feelings on social media.

“I know you’re resting, baby,” she wrote Jan. 6 on Twitter. “Promise as long as I’m alive, your fiery spirit will never die.”

“None of this feels real still,” she posted two days later.

At least four of the six rescue workers who converged at the crash scene to save Chanthraboutda’s life came to mourn Kealani. They stood together at the vigil, each of them wearing red ribbons on their chest.

Jessica and Robson said several of them have had trouble sleeping since the crash and are grief stricken because they weren’t able to save Kealani.

“I want you to sleep in peace. You guys did everything you could do,” Jessica told them. “I know you did. It was just her time. God took her.”

Robson Borba (holding microphone) stands with four passersby who helped pull a woman from a burning vehicle early on New Year's Day along Ga. 400. More than 100 family members and friends gathered at the Chairs restaurant in East Point recently to celebrate Kealani's life.

Credit: Matt Bruce

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Credit: Matt Bruce