Shift in Plans Fatal to Family in I-5 Pileup
Pedro Nocon and his family decided to drive home a day early from a Thanksgiving family reunion in the San Joaquin Valley. They shot pictures with relatives and loaded up the family van with farm eggs and meat, then headed south on Interstate 5.
On Sunday, relatives and friends gathered at the Nocon home in Lakewood, trying to absorb the horrible news delivered on the phone by the Fresno County coroner’s office.
The entire family--Pedro, his wife, Ampee Grepo, and the girls Jillanne, 8, and Glorianne, 5--died in the Friday dust storm that swept across the freeway near Coalinga. Their van was among the last vehicles to enter the sheer wall of wind-driven dust in which 104 vehicles piled up, some twisted and burned into unrecognizable clumps of metal.
“It was a last-minute decision,” said Rene Nocon, Pedro’s brother and one of 15 family members who had spent the holiday in Patterson, about 60 miles north of the crash. “We were all together. Everybody was happy and having fun.”
The Nocons had planned to make the drive back to Southern California on Saturday. But Friday morning, after a full evening of family bingo for the adults and Nintendo for the kids, the Nocons informed everyone that they would go home early so Ampee, a part-time real estate agent, could tend to some business.
The Nocons were sweethearts in the Philippines and emigrated to the United States in the early 1980s to marry and begin a family. Pedro was a bookkeeper, Ampee a leader of the San Francisco de Malbon Club, an organization of 200 Southern California families from the province of Cavite, about 30 miles south of Manila.
Friends and relatives at both ends of the state struggled Sunday with the cruel turn of fate and the gaping hole in their lives.
“It’s so sudden,” said Gena Grepo, Ampee’s sister, as she sat wet-eyed at the kitchen counter in the Nocon home on a quiet Lakewood cul de sac. Details poured out about the last time Grepo had seen her sister, late Wednesday night as the family prepared for a pre-dawn departure for Patterson.
“Nobody saw them leave,” she said, lingering on the thought.
Grepo and other relatives looked for solace in the knowledge that the parents and little girls had perished together--that somehow it would have been worse if one or two had survived to face the unbearable grief of the tragedy.
“They are all together,” Gena Grepo said. “I know they are all together.
Father John Twomey, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Artesia, where the Nocons were active and Jill attended the small parish school, said it was a “tremendous shock . . . to have a whole family unit” lost.
“There’s no way to prepare for these kinds of disasters,” he said.
The school, Our Lady of Fatima, was planning a special prayer service today and counseling for students, particularly those in Jill’s second-grade class.
“It’s devastating,” said school committee President Yoli Duenas. “This is our first really big awareness of how suddenly a family can be (lost).”
Details of what happened to the Nocons’ van are being reconstructed by California Highway Patrol investigators.
But authorities do know the family was among the last to enter the cloud of blowing dust and sand on I-5. “He was just inside the dust area,” said Richard Tobin, chief deputy coroner of Fresno County. "(They) were clear, and then (they) went into this thing and you couldn’t see.”
The mangled, fire-gutted wreckage of the van--which came to rest next to a burned semitrailer--was the worst of more than 100 vehicles scattered over more than a mile, Tobin said. “Their car was just totally destroyed,” he said.
Based on the position of the bodies and the damage to the vehicle, coroner investigators believe that the family members either died or were knocked unconscious by the initial impact.
In Lakewood, the Nocons’ relatives saw news of the pileup--one of the worst accidents ever on a California highway--on television Friday evening. But they were unaware of the family’s change in travel plans and assumed that the family was in Patterson.
The horror started with a call from Rene Nocon about 10 p.m. He had heard of the accident while returning to Sunnyvale and called to make sure his brother had made it home.
That began an all-night vigil by relatives, who studied newscasts for signs of Pedro’s van and checked back and forth by telephone.
They remained optimistic, partly because family members figured that the crashes had occurred, and the road had closed, before Pedro got to the Coalinga area. Family members told each other that Pedro and Ampee probably were tied up in the traffic snarl and chose to get a motel room.
The wait continued until about 10 a.m. Saturday, when someone knocked on the door at the Nocons’ home. One of Pedro’s brothers-in-law peered through the peephole and told waiting relatives and friends what they did not want to hear--two sheriff’s deputies were on the porch.
“We felt something bad had happened,” said Ron Santos, a family friend.
The deputies only gave them a Fresno phone number to call. Authorities there said a license plate number had been traced to the Lakewood home. The descriptions of the victims--a man, a woman and two girls--matched the Nocons.
For a time, some held out hope that there had been a mix-up. But by Sunday morning that hope was gone.
Twomey, the priest, and the school principal came by to offer help. Family members went off to make funeral arrangements, contact other kin and plan how they would bring distant relatives to town for the still-unscheduled services.
Others searched for meaning in the mundane last hours they spent with their brother, their sister, their nieces, their cousins--all abruptly gone.
“The thing I noticed when Pete left Patterson was, he was taking a lot of pictures,” Rene Nocon recalled. “After he took all the pictures, he gave me the film (to have developed).”
“I asked him: ‘When will we see each other?’
“His response was: ‘I don’t know.’ ”