South Pasadena High School was abuzz Friday afternoon with rumors of a party.
By Saturday night, one of the school’s most promising and popular students, who had attended that evening’s party, lay unresponsive on the grass as friends tried frantically to revive him.
Aydin Salek, 17, was pronounced dead at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena early Sunday. South Pasadena police said alcohol may have been involved in a collapse so swift and subtle that Salek’s friends did not realize at first that anything was wrong.
As the news spread through the high school Monday, classmates and educators tried to make sense of how a night out could have ended so tragically for the senior, who was involved in student government, sports and charity efforts.
Salek’s friends “were trying to get him home to go to sleep,” said South Pasadena Det.-Sgt. Jim Valencia. When they realized he was unresponsive, one friend tried to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation; the parent of another rushed to help; and one of the group called 911, Valencia said, adding: “We have not found any intentional delay” in calling 911.
Although the cause of death has not been determined, the episode spotlights the exceptional vulnerability of high school- and college-age people to alcohol.
All people are in danger of overloading their ability to metabolize alcohol if they drink too much, said Dr. Kathryn Challoner, who specializes in emergency medicine at County-USC Medical Center.
But teenagers and young people whose bodies have not yet been conditioned to alcohol may succumb after consuming relatively modest quantities, especially if they drink quickly, she said.
“A nondrinker can’t metabolize that much,” she said. “We hear about this all the time. It’s a common scenario: College kids and adolescents drink a lot of alcohol, and they don’t realize how dangerous that is.”
Police said Salek went with four friends to a party in a house on West Mariposa Street in Altadena about 9 p.m. Saturday. The party had been organized by an 18-year-old woman whose parents were not home at the time, they said.
The party cost $5 to enter, and the young woman had advertised it through a group of party promoters who spread the news on Facebook. Many of Salek’s classmates at South Pasadena High had gotten the word, and the party also drew scores of young people from elsewhere.
Police said the partygoers drank beer, and South Pasadena High students said that fruit punch and tequila were also served. Neighbors said they heard music and noticed a few teenagers lingering outside with cups in their hands, but they said the party did not appear to be particularly loud or wild.
Salek and his friends, all under 18, left the party about 10:45 p.m., police said. They were gone when sheriff’s deputies broke up the party without incident at 11:22, sending 75 to 100 young people on their way.
Salek’s friends headed back to South Pasadena. He was in the back of the car, passed out and snoring, which his friends took as a sign he was sleeping normally.
But by the time they arrived on the tree-lined street where a girl in the car lived, Salek had stopped breathing. They parked next to the curb and pulled Salek out of the car onto the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. A boy administered CPR, and paramedics and police arrived shortly after.
The teenagers were “crying and frantic,” said Andy Lee, the girl’s father, who ran outside to find Salek unconscious and apparently not breathing. Salek’s parents, also frantic, met the paramedics at the scene and followed the ambulance to Huntington Memorial, he said. Doctors pronounced Salek dead at 12:13 a.m.
“We all feel terrible about this,” Lee said in front of his house Monday. His daughter remained distraught. Lee described Salek as a smart, promising youth and said he was disturbed to learn that someone had provided the teenagers with alcohol. “People should be more responsible,” he said.
Police said they have interviewed the 18-year-old hostess of the party as well as the self-styled promoters. Investigators may consider charges, especially if alcohol poisoning is found to be the cause of death, Valencia said.
Challoner, the County-USC physician, said people often don’t realize that “passing out” from drinking too much is a danger sign. If a drinker appears lethargic and is difficult to rouse, seek help, she said. Snoring can sometimes be a sign that airways are in trouble, she said.
Salek’s friends at South Pasadena High described him as extremely outspoken and gregarious student who stood apart as a class leader. He was stout, dark haired, and always wore jeans, dress shoes and a T-shirt, said classmate Malcolm Friedman, 17.
“You’d hear him before you’d see him,” said another classmate, Kim Bae, 16.
Salek’s family had migrated from their native Iran a few years ago, and he had enrolled at the 1,500-student campus as a sophomore.
By his senior year, he wrote for the school newspaper and had volunteered to work for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He also served as elected student liaison to the South Pasadena School Board. Classmates said he offered a free doughnut to anyone who voted for him and delivered on the promise when he won.
He also competed on the school’s swim team and served as its manager. He was president of the American Cancer Society club at the school and participated in Model United Nations. He was outspoken politically and always had a joke ready.
He had a way of “Tom Sawyer-ing” people into joining his volunteer activities, said Gary Pia, a volunteer with the cancer group.
School Board President Richard Sonner recalled that Salek was so determined to take an active role at board meetings that he studied the law to make his case for student influence.
Sonner, an emergency room physician, said he heard the details of what happened and was reminded of patients who died similarly quiet deaths. “I can almost picture how the whole evening went,” he said.
“Everyone knew him,” said classmate Rachel Sutton, 18. “He was very passionate about everything he did.”
At school Monday, classes were silent, and teachers were lenient about allowing students to leave their seats and visit the homemade memorial in the school’s main quad, where a large framed picture of Salek stood with flowers and a 15-foot poster covered with handwritten inscriptions.
Salek’s father arrived at the campus Monday afternoon, accompanied by relatives. He was wearing black slacks and a long black coat and was sobbing. “This is very difficult,” he said.
Salek, who would have turned 18 Monday, was not known around school as a drinker, said Sutton, the classmate. She said his goal was to go to Harvard, become a defense attorney and then a prosecutor and ultimately serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Everyone is so confused about this,” she said.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this report.