The three vanloads of college students had left the Northern California church seven hours earlier. Their 400-mile journey to the monastery in the middle of the Mojave Desert was almost completed.
Two vans turned off Interstate 15, and it was just five miles down a dirt road until they would arrive at the St. Anthony Monastery in Yermo. They couldn’t spot the third van, so they called their friends on a cell phone.
When no one answered, the vans turned back to the highway.
What they found at 2:55 a.m. Saturday was the 2002 Ford van on its side, 11 of the 14 passengers thrown out of the vehicle, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Four were dead, and a fifth died on the way to the hospital. Five others remained hospitalized Sunday in conditions ranging from stable to critical. None of the dead or injured had used seat belts, the CHP said.
“This is the worst tragedy we’ve ever had,” said George Bassilios, youth leader of San Antonius Coptic Orthodox Church in Hayward, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, where the trip originated.
Bassilios was supposed to be driving one of the rented vans, but he backed out because he was moving. “I could have been driving that van. There’s a very good possibility I could have,” he said, his voice trailing off.
This was the eighth consecutive year that Coptic Orthodox youth groups from Northern California made the trip to St. Anthony, 15 miles from Barstow.
Each year they begin the trip at San Antonius, the oldest Coptic church in the Bay Area. They leave on a Friday night and return home Sunday night, spending time with the monks, reflecting and gaining “spiritual nourishment,” Bassilios said.
The van that overturned was driven by Peter Demian, 27, a well-respected youth leader from San Jose, the CHP said.
Demian was traveling 70 mph when the vehicle began to drift, officers said. Demian yanked the van to the left, pulled it into the center divider, then back to the right, then again to the left. The van once again pulled into the center divider, this time overturning and spilling most of its passengers along the highway.
Monks from the monastery rushed to the accident and offered prayers for the survivors, Bassilios said.
Demian suffered massive injuries to the back of his head. He was flown by helicopter to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he was in critical condition. Dead were Iman Hanalla, 24, and her sister, Dalal, 25, both of Salinas; Christine Youssef, 17, of San Jose; Simone G. Botros, 21, of Monterey; and Mary Demian, 21, of Fair Oaks. Mary Demian is not related to Peter Demian, Bassilios said.
“They all happened to be in one van, the sweetest girls of the whole youth trip,” Bassilios said. “They were like angels.”
The Hanallas and Youssef are Sunday school teachers.
Bassilios and priests from Bay Area churches flew south to tend to the victims Saturday.
Word travels quickly in the tightknit Coptic community of 1,000 families, and most people knew of the tragedy by Sunday’s Mass, which became something of a memorial service, Bassilios said. The Coptic church is a Christian religion that has its roots in ancient Egypt.
“We were in church all day talking to family members,” he said. “It’s been a mess out there.”
CHP officers said the vehicle was a 15-passenger Ford van. There have been several federal safety warnings about Ford vehicles of that size.
The auto manufacturer has been sued at least 70 times over the vehicles, with accident victims and their families saying the vans are defective because their high center of gravity makes them prone to rollovers, particularly when they are used -- as intended -- to ferry large numbers of people.
Bassilios said church youth groups often take bus trips, including an annual retreat to Lake Tahoe. He expects they will continue.
“Our church believes this was the will of God,” he said. “We believe this was their time, and the monastery trip was an outlet.”