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'Joyful evening' at Redondo Beach concert, and then a horrific crash

"I just saw people flying in the air," said an eyewitness to the Redondo Beach crash that killed three

Those in the crowd sauntered through the crosswalk after leaving a Christmas concert they had attended at a Redondo Beach church.

Then came the white Saturn hurtling through the adjacent red light. Screams followed — then the sickening sound of bodies hitting pavement.

"I just saw people flying in the air," said an eyewitness whose 8-year-old granddaughter had performed in Wednesday's concert held by the school at St. James Catholic Church. "I came to the front of my car and saw people scattered everywhere — everywhere."

In an instant, the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Vincent Street morphed into a scene of horror. At least one pedestrian was on the hood of the sedan when it collided head-on with another vehicle. Bystanders scrambled to tend to the bruised and bloodied. Some helped free a young boy who lay under the front tire of a car. A priest who was called outside began to anoint the victims.

The evening would end with three women declared dead. Nine others, including five children, suffered injuries. At least two victims were in critical condition. Clothing and other belongings littered the street.

Amid the chaos, authorities arrested a 56-year-old Redondo Beach resident on suspicion of felony vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Reliant on a motorized wheelchair for long distances, Margo Bronstein had a clean driving record but was restricted to driving a vehicle with hand-controlled brakes and an additional right-side mirror.

Authorities said they believe she had taken prescription drugs, although no medication was found in her car. Police are awaiting results of a toxicology test.

Michael Tovar, 61, said Bronstein had an odd look when he confronted her after the crash. "Look what you've done!" he said he shouted at Bronstein. She did not reply.

"I wanted to bring her out of the car," he said, "and show her that little boy that was laying there like that."

Treated at a local hospital for injuries, Bronstein was held on $300,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court Friday.

On Wednesday, Bronstein had been just three blocks from her home, a low-income senior housing community called Seaside Villa, where she was known as a conscientious resident and a Disney fanatic who collected Tinker Bell trinkets. Although she often walked with crutches, she was quick to make room for pedestrians when she was in her wheelchair.

"She's very personable, very kind," said Vanecia Wiley, a manager of the residence. "She doesn't want to be in anyone's way."

Bronstein often called to wish Wiley a good weekend and would let her know when she had taken medication. The manager did not know the type of medication but said Bronstein took care to take it only at home and to stay inside afterward.

Still, Bronstein enjoyed excursions and made good use of her annual pass to Disneyland Resort, a place she visited several times a week.

On Tuesday she posted Facebook photos of herself celebrating her birthday at the resort, posing in Mickey Mouse ears in front of the shimmering lights of a Christmas tree.

"She is like one of those kids that never wanted to grow up," said Dulce Mojarro, 34, who met Bronstein two years ago while the two were at an Aladdin show at Disneyland. "I would tell her, 'You have that child in you like Peter Pan.'"

Mojarro said that Bronstein is kind and outgoing but that she never spoke about her family or the reason she used a wheelchair.

When the pair would meet at Disneyland, it was Bronstein who always insisted that they stay until the park closed. They had made tentative plans to reconvene there again this week. "She's not the monster she's being portrayed as," Mojarro said.

The crash sent the tightknit church community reeling. Friends of the injured children were visibly shaken when talking about the incident. Classes at the preschool and elementary school were canceled Thursday and Friday. The church found itself offering grief counseling and solace to those seeking answers to the inconceivable.

On Thursday, dozens attended an emotional noon Mass celebrated by three priests.

"It was a quiet and joyful evening when it first began," said Associate Pastor Francis Aguilar as he addressed the crowd from the pulpit. "Who would have thought something tragic like this would happen? Especially close to our hearts and our own home. This is a tragedy for us. We ask all of you to continue to pray."

The community's focus has been on mourning the dead.

There was Martha Gaza, the 36-year-old mother of three who was heavily involved in school activities at St. James. And Mary Ann Wilson, 81, who had a green thumb, a penchant for traveling and a knack for making pies. And Saeko Matsumura, 87, who doted on the teenage grandson with whom she lived.

All residents of Torrance, they had been among the hundreds of attendees at the church Wednesday evening to watch their children and grandchildren perform.

"It was great energy, everybody was happy," recalled Tovar. "People were just talking and laughing. When you're watching your kids singing Christmas carols; how much better can that get?"

Gaza's children attend the school at St. James. Her youngest child, a kindergartner, was in critical condition Thursday, and her husband remained hospitalized, said Monica Valencia, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Msgr. Michael Meyers described Gaza as a "very caring individual."

Wilson's daughter Donna, 55, sat at home Thursday near a Christmas tree hung with ornaments and tinsel and remembered decorating the tree with her parents Saturday.

Wilson was deeply religious, her daughter said, had a great sense of humor and was known for her handmade cards. Most of all, her daughter said, she was crazy about her five grandchildren.

Valencia, the archdiocese spokeswoman, said Matsumura was the grandmother of an eighth-grader at the school. Matsumura's daughter Karen Lem and Lem's son Jasper were injured in Wednesday's accident, she said.

His voice wavering, Sam Stromwall, 14, described his friend Jasper as someone who "tried to do the right thing."

"It's not fair. It shouldn't have happened," he said. He attended Thursday's noon Mass at the church but left early, visibly distraught.

The church became a somber refuge, where the teary-eyed left bouquets of flowers at a makeshift memorial. Yellow ribbons were tied to a light post.

"Three kids woke up today without a mommy, and that's what's killing me," said church member Anna Henkel, referring to Gaza, as she stood at the memorial with tears glistening on her face. "We're going to get through this together."

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ruben Vives, Joe Serna, Veronica Rocha and Tre'vell Anderson contributed to this report.

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