Richard L. Olsen was haunted by the image of three people burning to death in the car wreck that made him a hero, tormented by the memory of how he tried but failed to pull them free.
Although the 33-year-old man managed to save one boy from the flames that engulfed the wreckage 17 months ago, he could not forget the others who perished.
“He’d turn up at my door at night and say, ‘I just can’t stop thinking about it,’ ” said Charline Averill.
On Sunday, Olsen’s body was found near a trail in Angeles National Forest. He had not been seen for three days, but friends said he was an experienced outdoorsman and was familiar with the San Gabriel Mountains area.
Friends wonder if Olsen, who plunged into depression after the rescue, took his life. He was hospitalized after a suicide attempt last fall, they said.
Coroner’s spokesman Bob Dambacher said it may be weeks before completion of a laboratory analysis that could determine how Olsen died.
In the meantime, friends say they have been calling authorities desperate for information about Olsen’s death, which came four months after he was honored by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner for displaying “great bravery and presence of mind” in the car rescue.
“He was living with me after the accident and would have recurring nightmares and hallucinations. He would wake up screaming,” said Betsy Jones-Moreland, an actress and dog kennel owner from El Monte.
Those who knew Olsen--who took the nickname Ivan--said his life was already troubled by alcohol and drug binges when it took a careening turn Aug. 12, 1989.
Olsen had left his mother’s house in Torrance that day and was heading back to El Monte, where for nearly a decade he had established himself as an expert fix-it man for many of the dog kennel owners in that city.
Olsen was in his van, waiting at the intersection of 190th Street and Normandie Avenue, when a driver sideswiped him and rear-ended a Toyota station wagon carrying six members of a Los Angeles family. The Toyota flew in the air, landed and caught fire.
“When I saw the flames on that car, the only thing on my mind was ‘Get them out,’ ” Olsen said at the Sept. 24 ceremony where he and 12 others were honored by Reiner for bravery.
Olsen managed to pull Danny Garavito, who was 12 at the time, through a window. Danny’s mother, Rosalina Garavito, was able to escape by herself.
As Olsen tried to pull one man free by yanking on his belt, flames engulfed the car. Rosalina Garavito’s husband, sister and brother-in-law perished in the fire. Her daughter died after being thrown through the windshield.
“Imagine having to stand there watching the car go up in flames, hearing the people screaming and then seeing them die; it was like a combat zone for someone who had never been trained,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Van Arnam, who helped prosecute the driver.
Phillip Carlos Jarmon, 28, who was under the influence of PCP when he caused the accident, was sentenced to 69 years to life in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder, Van Arnam said.
During the months after the accident, Olsen lived occasionally in his van, which was still damaged from the crash. Friends said he worked less and less, apparently unable to concentrate.
“There are 23 kennels in El Monte and after I got to know him I realized he was some kind of genius so I gave him all kinds of referrals to other kennel owners,” said Jones-Moreland. “Most of the kennels are run by women so he would keep our cars running and our swamp coolers running and was real good with animals.”
In addition to his skill with machines, Olsen had become proficient playing bluegrass music on his violin. But even music could not keep away the nightmares.
Following a suicide attempt last fall, friends said they were hopeful that he would overcome his depression by seeking professional help. While in a hospital, he wrote a letter to his longtime girlfriend, Bernadette Sabula.
“I am very lonely in this place,” Olsen wrote. “I want to get it together more than anything else.”