Three teenage girls racing to a friend's high school graduation ceremony lost control of their car and careened off the Ventura Freeway on Monday morning in a crash that left one dead and two seriously injured.
"It's devastating," said Nancy Maxson, principal of Pacific High School in Ventura, which was hosting the graduation ceremony the girls had planned to attend.
The trio were running an hour late to watch their friend Ashley Nussman, 18, of Ventura graduate in a 10 a.m. ceremony at Ventura College.
The crash occurred shortly before 11 at the northbound Johnson Drive overpass in Ventura, about two miles from the college campus on Telegraph Road, police said.
Ana Rosa Uribe, 17, an independent-study student at El Camino High School in Ventura, was in the back seat of the car when it landed upside-down on a set of railroad tracks, crushing her to death, police said.
The other passenger, Lea Casillas, 16, a junior at Buena High School in Ventura where she is a standout softball player, suffered skull fractures and was in grave condition Monday night at Ventura County Medical Center.
The driver, 18-year-old Oxnard College freshman Sopheak "Sophie" Riem, suffered head and internal injuries and possibly a broken arm. She was in guarded condition at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura.
Nussman and the three teens had become close friends through school and work, their families said. A graduation invitation, balloons and flowers were found among the wreckage.
At Community Memorial on Monday night, Riem's parents huddled in a waiting room and said they were too shaken to talk except to say they were praying for their daughter's recovery.
Family and friends said Nussman and Riem had worked together at a Ventura County marketing firm, and Nussman attended Buena High with Casillas and Uribe before transferring to Pacific High, a continuation school.
At the county hospital, dozens of teary-eyed family members and friends of Casillas and Uribe gathered.
"It just feels like a big nightmare--it doesn't feel real," said Casillas' mother, Shelley.
Sobs erupted in the waiting room when doctors confirmed the seriousness of Lea's condition.
Casillas and Uribe were good friends for years. Those who knew her remembered Uribe as a sweet and fun girl who loved shopping and her friends. When her best friend, Jolene Thompson, 17, had her tonsils removed, Uribe sat with her all night.
"She was just the sweetest thing you'd ever want to meet," said Mille Hart, Thompson's mother, crying. "She had a hug for you the minute you came in the door."
According to CHP Officer Dave Webb, Riem was driving north on the Ventura Freeway in the fast lane, just north of Johnson Drive in Ventura, when she moved into the middle lane. Shortly afterward, she lost control of the car, which slammed through a metal guardrail and flew off the freeway, Webb said.
All three victims were wearing seat belts. The cause of the accident was still being investigated.
Several motorists told police it appeared Riem was traveling at more than 80 mph and had possibly struck a bag of cement in the roadway before losing control.
But Webb said investigators had found no evidence of any roadway obstructions--even though the crash occurred over a small bridge where Caltrans has been doing construction work for several weeks.
"I could feel my knees beginning to lock and I felt helpless," said Nellie Balderrama, 35, of Camarillo, who witnessed the crash while driving a few cars behind the victims.
When rescue crews arrived, Webb said, they found the car 60 feet over the edge of the freeway and lying on its roof on the railroad tracks. Uribe was dead, and Casillas and Riem were trapped, officers said.
Ivar and Suzanne Moore, managers of a storage facility adjacent to the railroad tracks, have a surveillance camera mounted on their property that captured the crash on videotape. Officers said they hope to find more clues to the cause on the tape.
Times staff writer Matt Surman and photographer Steve Osman contributed to this report.