It had already been a tough winter in the Central California farm town of Riverdale. The drought had crippled some farms and caused some of the almond trees, long a sign of pride and prosperity, to wither and die.
"Everybody's been tightening their belts," said Kathryn Ervin, 60. "Times are hard."
But no one was prepared for what unfolded Saturday night: A horrific accident that sent an SUV carrying a mother and her four children hurtling in flames toward a nearby house. A man pulling up seconds later, sprinting toward the wreckage to help, burning his hands and arms as five people died in the flames — his people. His wife and his four children.
"It's just a tragedy that can't be described. Your sense of what is even possible in this world…," said Ervin, her voice trailing off. The family's burning car had come to rest against her home.
Residents of this tight-knit rural town of 2,400, about 25 miles south of Fresno, have visited the crash site by the dozen to pay their respects. At the hardware store, they are circulating a petition to improve safety at the intersection where the crash occurred. There are plans to build a permanent memorial to the victims.
But it all seems wanting.
"The whole community is broken," Ervin said. "I figure — what can I do? So I cry. I do. I cry."
According to the California Highway Patrol, 29-year-old Esmeralda Saucedo was driving south on South Marks Avenue with her four children about 7 p.m. The family was returning from a birthday party for Saucedo's youngest, Isaac, who was to turn 2 this week. Saucedo's husband and the father of the children was traveling separately in another car, about a quarter mile behind them.
About two miles from the family's home, they entered the intersection at Excelsior Avenue. The intersection has a notorious reputation. There is a stop sign on Excelsior but not on Marks, and in a rural area the stop sometimes takes drivers by surprise. It has been the site of numerous serious accidents over the years, several of them fatal, according to residents.
"People get zoned out," Ervin said. "They drive on a country road and it gets monotonous."
Heading west on Excelsior was Juana Martinez Bejarano, 41, at an estimated 60 mph, authorities said — not much above the legal limit of 55. Bejarano appears to have missed the stop sign, officials said, and the cars collided.
Bejarano, a Riverdale resident, was listed in fair condition at a local hospital Monday. The CHP has said her speed was not a factor in the crash, nor were drugs or alcohol, but they are looking into her possible use of medications.
Saucedo's Ford SUV burst into flames almost immediately — flames that her husband witnessed from his car.
"It was an explosion," said Lori Pierce, who lives near the intersection and was inside her mobile home at the time. "It shook our trailer. I've never heard anything like it."
Pierce and her husband, Robert, raced outside as Saucedo's husband, who has not been identified by authorities, was running toward his wife's car.
At first Robert Pierce tried to help the man get to the people trapped inside, but the fire was too intense, Lori Pierce said. The man repeatedly tried to fight through the flames, but it was clearly too late, she said, and Robert Pierce had to pull him away from the wreckage.
"There was nothing that could be done," Ervin said. "The man would have been killed himself."
The Fresno County coroner Monday identified the dead, in addition to Esmeralda Saucedo, as Isaac Saucedo, 1; Nikko Saucedo, 3; Jada Saucedo, 6; and Breanna Reyes-Saucedo, 11.
A fundraiser for the family was scheduled for Monday night at the local volunteer Fire Department. Two online fundraising sites have also been established to help the family cover funeral expenses.
In addition, Ervin and others have launched a petition drive to persuade local transportation officials to make the intersection safer with warning bumps and lights. And an effort is underway to erect a permanent plaque at the intersection to honor those who were killed.
In the meantime, the tiny farm town grieves.
"People love each other here, and the sadness is just overwhelming," she said. "One life is precious. This was five precious lives, taken in one fell swoop."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times