Witness heard pop before SUV in deadly crash lost control
“CHP investigators still looking for cause of I-5 crash that killed 5 members of San Pedro family.”
First, there was a pop.
It wasn’t loud, but it was loud enough to be heard through the hum of noon traffic, making Rex Williamson glance up from his parked car and see a Chevrolet Tracker careen through traffic and into a pole on the right shoulder. The SUV seemed to corkscrew in midair, said the retired firefighter, and a plume of steam started to rise from the car almost immediately as it slammed down on its roof.
Inside the wreck were Juan Sandoval, 37; his wife, Belinda Leon Sandoval, 33; their two daughters, Nayeli, 11, and Natalie, 4; and their cousin Andrea Flores, 6, family members said.
Williamson had just bought a cup of coffee and was sitting inside his car in a parking lot on Cabot Road, overlooking the bookstore near where the SUV crashed down. Though he was a few yards from the crash, he was separated by train tracks and had to drive about a half-mile before being able to head down El Paseo Road, where the SUV landed.
A firefighter for 32 years, Williamson did what he was trained to do for most of his life: He tried to help. As he neared the crash scene, what at first looked like steam had transformed into black smoke as flames began to tear through the SUV. By the time Williamson and other good Samaritans arrived, there wasn’t much they could do but watch the flames.
“I tried to get close, but the heat was too much,” Williamson said. “I shot the fire extinguisher but it evaporated before it did anything.”
Within 30 seconds after crashing, the car seemed to be filled with flames. The Sandovals, two daughters and niece were still inside. Williamson said he could hear the faint moaning of someone inside the car as he and others tried to reach into the SUV, but neither he nor the three people who ran to help could get close to it. Within 20 feet from the SUV, the heat became unbearable. Fifteen seconds later, the moaning stopped.
“When I got there, there wasn’t anything else to do,” he said. “We just stood there and watched it burn.”
It was a frustrating and heartbreaking experience, said the 54-year-old Mission Viejo resident. As a firefighter with the Orange County Fire Authority, he worked most of his career at Station 24 the same company that responded to the deadly crash.
“Burning flesh you never forget it, the smell,” he said. “People around were kind of, ‘What could we do?’ “
The following day, Williamson returned to the crash site to place flowers in memory of the victims.
“Even though I’m retired, you still want to help,” he said. “I tried to get there as quick as I could.”
Investigators are still going through evidence and statements from witnesses to piece together what caused the deadly crash, said California Highway Patrol officer Chris Goodwin. Skid marks were visible on the two right lanes of the freeway.
Investigators are looking at all possibilities, Goodwin said, including the possibility of inattention or mechanical failure, such as a tire blowout a possible source of the pop Williamson said he heard.
“We’re still getting calls (from witnesses),” Goodwin said. “We haven’t pinned the primary collision factor.”
Hedi Mouchard, of Irvine, was on her way to an appointment in Mission Viejo. She was driving southbound on the freeway and one lane over from the slow lane, just before the crash, when all of a sudden she saw what looked like a black piece of plastic construction material on the road in front of her. Thats when she noticed the dark-colored SUV, and realized that what she saw in front of her was tire debris in her lane.
I thought the car in front of me ran over it and kicked it up, she said. Then as I got closer I realized it was just pieces of tire. Thats when I noticed the car in front of me was on its rim. It was making a really loud clanking sound. It was a very different kind of flat tire.
Though everything happened in a flash, Mouchard, of Irvine, remembers seeing the driver of the SUV make a fast lane change to the slow lane. A beige-colored car, still unknown to the CHP, had to avoid the sudden lane change. Then the SUV did a spin and hit a light standard, snapping it. Mouchard pressed the gas a little thinking the pole was coming towards the traffic.
Then the car, facing backwards, just started to roll down the embankment, she said. It seemed like it just disappeared. Described as a close-knit family by friends and relatives, the Sandovals were headed to Legoland when the crash occurred. Though family members said they have been contacted by sheriff’s officials about the crash, the coroner’s division is still looking to identify the five people inside through dental records, said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department.
When Williamson learned three children were involved in the collision, it made the tragedy even more sad, he said. “First thing I did was call my wife,” Williamson said. ” ‘How are the kids and tell them I love them.’ “
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