3 killed when runaway truck crashes into Santa Barbara home

In a couple of hours, the boy named Jasiel would have started the second day of second grade and his parents would have gone off to the multiple jobs they worked just to get by.

But with a terrible noise and a choking plume of smoke, their Santa Barbara house collapsed atop them shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday as a runaway truck finally came to a tragic halt.

Buried beneath the rubble of their home and a mountain of gravel being hauled to a construction site, the effervescent 7-year-old and his parents died in the crash that demolished their small rented home at the foot of San Marcos Pass. Its driver, Joaquin Garcia Morales, 51, of Oxnard, was not seriously injured.

Authorities did not immediately identify the family. But neighbors knew the couple as Leon and Leona, a likeable and hard-working pair who this week would have celebrated their first year of renting the little house behind a motel called the Hope Ranch Inn on upper State Street.

“They took that place and truly made it into a home,” said Nancy Schliemann, the motel’s general manager and the couple’s landlord. “They made it beautiful,” she said, her voice quavering. “And their little boy — their little boy was just magical.”

Schliemann said it wasn’t the first time a big truck had come barreling off California 154, the steep and winding road that traverses San Marcos Pass. Five years ago, she said, a truck narrowly missed the motel, spilling its load of fruit before it screeched to a stop just yards away.

“I said then it’ll take a death for someone to do something about it,” she said. “Trucks just shouldn’t be allowed on the 154.”

A California Highway Patrol spokesman said the intersection of the highway and State Street isn’t inherently hazardous. “It’s no more dangerous than any other intersection” for trucks that are operated properly, Officer J.W. Wayland said. As he spoke, he gazed at a crane hovering over the remains of both the truck and the house.

Leon worked in restaurants. Leona did child care. A couple of Jasiel’s uncles lived with them too, but one had already left for work and the other apparently was outside as Morales futilely tried to stop his speeding truck.

Morales owned the rig and had loaded it up with gravel at a quarry near Santa Ynez. Bound for Santa Paula, he opted to avoid U.S. 101, taking a shortcut on 154.

Barely out of Santa Ynez, he stopped to investigate braking problems, Wayland said. Morales told officers he thought he had fixed the brakes, but the problem cropped up again near the summit of the pass.

Motorists following the truck said smoke streamed out of the back of the rig. Morales told officers he had tried futilely to slow down by downshifting and using the hand brake. As he crossed State Street, he managed to negotiate a dog-leg to the right into a parking lot between the Hope Ranch Inn and a commercial strip with a restaurant, a payday loan business and several stores.

Wayland said Morales was going 50 mph down the length of the parking lot before crashing into two parked cars and then the family’s home. He said the driver was cooperative with investigators. Authorities do not believe Morales was impaired by drugs or alcohol.

After the crash, a few people rushed to the house, trying to lift out chunks of rubble and search for survivors.

“I wanted to get to the little boy,” said John Paul Guizar, Schliemann’s husband. “I had to get in.”

After firefighters and police converged on the scene, Guizar said he kept calling the family’s number, hoping he would hear that they had spent the night somewhere else or already left for the day. Nobody answered.

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.