Olivia Gamboa began her route through downtown Los Angeles in the pre-dawn darkness.
After 13 years as a bus driver with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, she could have chosen any shift. She opted to drive at 5 a.m., as most of the city slept, so she could care for her 3-year-old grandson in the afternoons and spare her daughter the cost of day care.
At 5:10 a.m. Wednesday, Gamboa was traveling west on 5th Street, her bus still empty, when police say a flatbed tow truck going 60 mph ran a red light at Broadway. The collision ripped open the front of the bus, sheared off a fire hydrant and destroyed the facade of a corner 7-Eleven.
Gamboa died at the hospital hours after the crash. Police are continuing an investigation and have not officially identified the tow truck driver, who remains hospitalized in critical condition. Gamboa’s family expects to sue the truck driver.
Gamboa, 47, was described by those closest to her as a dedicated wife, mother and grandmother and a devout Catholic who loved being around people. She took pride in working hard and helping others, from her grandchildren to the passengers on her daily route.
“She was holding her whole family together,” said Jessica Eiland, an MTA driver who knew Gamboa and her husband for more than a decade. “She was their backbone.”
Gamboa grew up in Teocaltiche, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and immigrated to the United States more than two decades ago. She met her future husband, Bernardo Gamboa, on Valentine’s Day during a church outing to Olvera Street. They were married there six months later.
While their three daughters were still young, the couple took jobs with the MTA. As a junior driver with long and unpredictable hours, Gamboa would arrive at work smiling, but she quietly fretted that she couldn’t watch her children grow up, co-workers said.
Gamboa developed a reputation for being organized and religious. Supervisor James Woodson had asked her more than once to become a manager, but she chose to remain a driver so she could work the early shift. She would arrive at the MTA’s downtown division headquarters at 4 a.m., an hour before heading out on her route, to have her bus inspected, pick up paperwork and talk with co-workers. Weaving through the pingpong tables and vending machines at the bus facility, she would often ask others about their anniversaries and children.
If gossip started about an unpopular co-worker, Gamboa would shush it. When a supervisor’s husband died, she ducked inside her office every morning to flash a thumbs-up and ask, “Are you OK?”
Before she boarded her bus each morning, Gamboa sat alone for a few minutes to pray for her family, her co-workers and her passengers.
Her route, Line 18, connects downtown Los Angeles to working-class neighborhoods in Montebello. Some riders were students. Others were homeless. Many were fiercely loyal to their punctual driver, who wore a navy blue beret at a rakish angle and chose a crisp, long-sleeved uniform with a tie, even in the summer.
A group of older women, whom Gamboa called her mejitas, often brought candy when they boarded the bus. When MTA supervisor Rosa Graciano rode along one day for a standard inspection, protective riders peppered her with questions, demanding to know what Gamboa had done to deserve scrutiny.
Gamboa proudly told other drivers when her daughter started at the MTA a year ago, saying she hoped she would one day become a manager. She also talked excitedly about her 25th wedding anniversary: the couple were planning to renew their vows in October at St. Benedict’s Parish in Montebello, where they were lectors.
After work, Gamboa tended to her family, looking after three grandchildren, preparing tamales for her daughters and caring for a small menagerie of animals, including two birds and a puppy named Monkey.
“She looked after everyone else first,” said Juan Gomez, a nephew who recalled that Gamboa cooked spaghetti for him on his first night in the U.S.
Before her grandson was born three years ago, Gamboa decorated a room in her home for the boy, who sometimes accidentally called her ‘Mom.’ Glow-in-the-dark stars and Buzz Lightyear stickers still dot the sky-blue walls.
Four years ago, her husband suffered a heart attack and Gamboa argued with doctors until they allowed her to remain at his side in the intensive care unit. “The energy she had, it always surprised me,” Bernardo Gamboa said. “We just couldn’t be apart.”
Gamboa normally carried a cross in her breast pocket and kept rosary beads within reach, relatives recalled this week. The morning she died, she’d left them on a nightstand at home.