Redondo Beach church remembers those killed, injured in crash

Redondo Beach church remembers those killed, injured in crash
Parishioners embrace during a prayer service at St. James Catholic Church in Redondo Beach. Driver Margo Bronstein was arraigned Friday on charges that included gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. (Christina House, For The Times)

In one photo, Samuel Gaza sits among his young friends, wearing a tie and beaming with happiness.

In another, he is with his family, his mother proudly grasping the arm of his older sister, who holds a trophy.


On Sunday at St. James Catholic Church in Redondo Beach, people who knew Samuel gazed at the photos, now part of a memorial bursting with teddy bears, poinsettias and candles, and remembered a 6-year-old whose infectious spirit made him everyone's friend.

Others who did not know him pondered the terrible twist of fate that put Samuel, who was hoping to get a Star Wars light saber for Christmas, in the path of a driver who ran a red light and plowed into a crowd of people leaving a holiday concert at the church.

Samuel and his mother, Martha Gaza, were killed, along with two women who had accompanied their grandchildren to the Wednesday night concert. Samuel's father and two sisters were among the eight injured.

Sunday morning, many who attended Mass parked across Pacific Coast Highway from the church, as the victims had, walking across the same crosswalk where the accident happened.

As they passed the memorial, some crossed themselves. Others wept. Less than a week before Christmas, they struggled with grief and sympathy for the family members left behind, as well as questions of faith and forgiveness.

"I believe strongly that they're with God," said Natalie Patti, 49. "Faith is what gets you through it. I just hope that faith brings their families the peace they're going to need."

The driver, Margo Bronstein, was arraigned Friday on charges that included gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Prosecutors believe Bronstein, 56, who uses a motorized wheelchair, was under the influence of prescription medication and may have swerved around cars stopped at the light before hitting the people in the crosswalk.

"She's going to have to live with that for as long as her life is," said Trish Yearley as she left the church with her husband and two sons. "I don't wish ill will on that woman."

Devin Watanabe, 5, who attended kindergarten with Samuel, placed a Buzz Lightyear ornament on the memorial under the photo of Samuel and his friends, which shows her sitting to his right.

"I'm just happy he's with his mom," Devin's mother, Gillian Watanabe, said. "He wouldn't have had a life here without her."

A boy named Daniel left a note for his friend in blue marker, saying he would give Samuel "a Star Wars sord and Ninja turtles" for Christmas.

Another boy, Jeremiah, also alluded to the Star Wars sword in his note before concluding: "I'll miss your laph. I'm so sad. And now you can see Santa Clause eat cookies and milk."

At the 10 a.m. Mass, Father Francis Aguilar said he had the day off Wednesday. He took his mother Christmas shopping and planned to meet with friends in the evening. He got a frantic phone call from the church's pastor, Msgr. Michael Meyers.

The priests anointed the victims who lay in the street, then went to the hospital, where, Aguilar said, Martha Gaza's parents could not comprehend that their daughter could die while they still lived.


Aguilar recalled that Samuel Gaza always gave him a high five after Mass.

According to the Bible, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, Aguilar said. In other words, bad things can happen to good people.

"Our world is filled with tragedy and pain, but at the same time, it is also filled with joy, hope and fulfillment," he said. "I believe our God exists in both worlds."

Samuel and his kindergarten classmates had sung in the concert just before the accident. His teacher, Denise Spencer, said she rubbed Samuel's feet and kissed him before the ambulance took him away. He died at the hospital the next day.

"He was a wonderful student, just full of life," Spencer said. "He was a sweet boy, loved by all."

The church has set up a fund to help the victims. Donations can be made at