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Car Runs Down 5 Children in Driveway : Accident: A boy, 2, knocks idling vehicle into gear. Three are injured critically, one seriously.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a freak accident that overwhelmed even veteran emergency response workers, a 2-year-old knocked an idling Thunderbird into gear, running down five children playing in a North Hollywood driveway Saturday morning.

Horrified parents and neighbors turned into rescuers, lifting the vehicle up and dragging the children out before paramedics arrived.

“They were crying from pain, we could hear them moan,” said rescuer Alverto Torres, 41. “One didn’t move.”

Three girls--two 10-year-olds and a 5-year-old--were hospitalized in critical condition, and a 6-year-old girl was in serious condition. The fifth victim, a 7-year-old boy, suffered minor injuries.

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The tragedy unfolded in a working-class area of North Hollywood shortly before 10 a.m. when Estela Lopez started her car in the driveway and then ran back into her house to grab her purse and hurry her three children along for a special Saturday treat: breakfast at McDonald’s.

Her youngest child, a 2-year-old boy, made it outside first, Lopez said in an interview. When she turned to go back out to the car, she said, the child climbed into the driver’s side and the car began to move forward toward the end of the drive, where five children were playing.

Lopez said she screamed and then grabbed the rear bumper in a desperate and futile attempt to stop the car.

Hearing the scream and the thud of the car hitting the youngsters, neighbor Olga Vega left breakfast cooking on the stove and ran to her doorway. She saw her 5-year-old daughter under the car.

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“I heard the sound,” Vega said, starting to sob. “I see the little kids and the car is over them. I wanted to pull her feet. I tried.”

By the time his fire engine and ambulance got to the three-unit apartment complex on Agnes Avenue, Fire Capt. Frank David said, the children had been rescued from under the car by the neighbors--who had lifted the vehicle by hand and shoved a 4-by-4 board and a car jack underneath. The victims were lying on the driveway in various states of consciousness.

The children’s toys, two bicycles, a pair of children’s safety scissors, a bag of Oreo cookies and a picture book were visible under the 1984 Thunderbird, he said.

“We were expecting to see a typical child hit by a car,” David said. “We were overwhelmed because it was such an emotional scene and there were a lot of people.”

When the 2-year-old knocked the steering column gearshift into drive, the car moved forward 20 to 30 feet at about 2 to 5 m.p.h., said 0fficer Richard Prindle of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Even at that speed, the car knocked the children and their toys down. “It just rolled right over them,” Prindle said.

Although he said it is unclear where each of the children were at the time of the accident, Prindle said some were playing on the driveway and others were sitting on a couch slightly to the side.

“It’s a freak thing,” he said. “The public needs to know that you don’t let your car be running with children anywhere near there.”

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Prindle said it is unlikely that any charges will be filed.

Three of the injured are siblings: 10-year-old Janette, 6-year-old Guadalupe and 7-year-old Alex Rodriguez. The two others are cousins of each other: 5-year-old Leslie Vega and 10-year-old Valeria Fernandez.

Janette was in critical condition at Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles. Alex, who suffered minor injuries, was taken to the Medical Center of North Hollywood, and Guadalupe was in serious condition at UCLA Medical Center.

Leslie was in critical condition at UCLA Medical Center.

Valeria--in critical condition at Childrens Hospital--had come from Pacoima for a visit, said Leslie’s father, Sergio. Having Valeria spend time with her young cousins in North Hollywood seemed like a nice break for her, he said.

Neighbors who live in the small, well-kept houses along the narrow street where the accident took place continued to drop by the scene throughout the morning, asking Lopez to recount the horrible tale again, some of them crying with her at the retelling and then offering consolation.

“How can it happen, this?” asked Maria Lopez, the Rodriguez children’s great-aunt. “How can it happen?”

Times correspondent Eric Slater and Times staff writer Jeanette Regalado contributed to this report.

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