It was a family-oriented motorcycle club whose members — married couples, small-business owners and government workers — were riding about 150 miles to a casino to celebrate the group’s 10th anniversary.
FOR THE RECORD: A headline on a previous version of this story said that five bikers were killed. Four motorcyclists died along with a passenger in the car that hit them.
But partway through the ride on a two-lane desert road in the Imperial Valley, a car plowed into the Saddletramps Motorcycle Club, leaving five people dead, five others critically injured and tangled metal spread across the road for 100 yards.
“The carnage was unreal, unreal,” club president Carl Smith said Sunday.
The 21 motorcycle enthusiasts began their ride Saturday in the eastern San Diego County community of Lakeside, where the group is based. They were on their way to Winterhaven, on the California-Arizona border.
Once in Imperial County, the bikers decided to travel State Route 98 rather than Interstate 8, where trucks and cars often press the speed limit.
Club members were wearing helmets, driving in formation for safety and were within the speed limit, according to the California Highway Patrol.
About 12:50 p.m., shortly after the group descended into the flatland of Imperial Valley, about 80 miles east of San Diego near the hamlet of Ocotillo, a gold Honda Civic pulled behind them.
The impatient Honda driver, heading east like the Saddletramps, attempted to pass the motorcycles by pulling into the westbound lane.
A Dodge Avenger, seeing the Honda heading toward it, swerved to the right shoulder, then overcompensated by swerving left, according to the CHP. The driver lost control, sending the car into a sideways skid and ramming head-on into at least six motorcyclists.
Smith estimated that the Honda was traveling 90 to 100 mph when it tried to pass the entire group of motorcycles.
“He came out of nowhere,” said Smith, who was riding point and was narrowly missed by the Dodge. “The other car went out of control and then started smashing into motorcycles. It was like bowling.”
Four motorcycle riders were killed. Five others were airlifted or taken by ambulance to UC San Diego Medical Center or El Centro Regional Medical Center, according to the CHP. A passenger in the Dodge, identified as the driver’s wife, was also killed.
The driver of the Dodge, whose wrist was injured in the accident, was given a blood test to determine if he had drugs or alcohol in his system, CHP Officer Wes Boerner said.
The CHP identified him as Carlos Ramirez Bobadilla, 36, of Mexicali, Mexico.
He is not considered responsible for the crash, according to the CHP.
“He’s a victim, just like us,” Smith said.
The driver of the Honda, which did not hit any motorcycles, slowed briefly and then continued speeding east toward Calexico, according to the CHP, which is searching for the car and driver.
“He knows the death and carnage he caused,” Smith said. “I just hope he does the right thing and turns himself in.”
The Imperial County’s Sheriff’s Department had not released the names of the dead.
But Smith, 52, who works at a motorcycle shop and also runs a sand-and-gravel business, identified those from his group as Lance and Amy Heath of Alpine, Bill Miller of Ramona, and Tonya Trayer of El Cajon.
He visited injured members of the group, including Trayer’s husband, at the hospital Sunday. He said their collective injuries included broken jaws, a broken hip, a broken pelvis, a ruptured spleen, internal bleeding and a brain injury.
He said doctors have indicated that all will need surgery and long rehabilitation but will survive. “Their prognosis is pretty good, considering what they’ve been through,” Smith said.
The ages of the dead and injured range from early 30s to late 50s, according to the CHP.
The Saddletramps club is heavily involved in charitable work, Smith said, including a toy drive at Christmas.
“This has devastated a lot of lives of good, hardworking, community-spirited people,” Smith said.
The Saddletramps were well-known in the tight-knit community of motorcycle clubs, and the weekend’s news hit hard.
“They were a bunch of older gentlemen; they all had a lot of experience,” said a salesman at Sweetwater Harley-Davidson in San Diego, who would give his name only as Justin. “People think motorcycle clubs are out doing bad things. That’s not remotely true. These are families. They were good people out having a good day. I hope they catch that guy in the Honda, I really do.”
The remote and picturesque area where the crash occurred is a popular cruising destination.
“I was out there with my club three weeks ago,” Justin said. “There’s nothing but a lot of dirt and gravel. It’s in the middle of nowhere. You think nothing can happen to you. It kind of freaked me out.”
A Harley-Davidson outlet owner in San Diego is planning a blood drive to help the survivors, Smith said.
Times staff writer Julie Cart contributed to this report.