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Finding cause of fatal Irvine crash may take weeks, officials say

Finding cause of fatal Irvine crash may take weeks, officials say
Students from Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo wear T-shirts honoring classmates Alex Sotelo and Matthew Melo, as well as 8th-grader Brandon Moreno. The boys and two girls from Laguna Hills High School were killed in a car crash in Irvine over the weekend. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

As students in southern Orange County returned to class Monday, many still numbed by the loss of five classmates in a fiery weekend crash, authorities said it could take at least a month to determine what caused the violent wreck.

CHP investigators said they are weighing whether to seek criminal charges against the 16-year-old driver, the only one to survive the crash.

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Bradley Morales did not have a driver's license or learner's permit, and had not started the process of obtaining either, said J.J. Antillon, an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol.

CHP investigators said the car was registered to a family member with the same last name, but authorities did not yet know how they were related.

Morales remained in serious but stable condition Monday after undergoing brain surgery, according to a statement from CHOC Children's at Mission Hospital.

"At this time, his family does not wish to release any other information," the statement said.

Morales' five passengers — one in the front seat, four squeezed in the back — were killed Saturday when the car veered off the 5 Freeway in Irvine, hit a guardrail, climbed an embankment and came to rest on a concrete retaining wall, bursting into flames.

CHP investigators said the 2:10 a.m. single-car accident was so violent and destructive that the investigation will take extra time. Authorities said they believe speed was a factor, but do not know how fast the car was traveling or even what lane it had been in.

Investigators said Monday they were seeking witnesses and the identity of the person who made the initial 911 call to authorities.

Antillon said there is no indication that drugs or alcohol were factors in the crash.

Five bodies were found in the vehicle and Morales was found outside, officials said.

Two female victims of the crash were identified by friends and family members as Jennifer Campos and Jennifer Bahena. Both girls were students at Laguna Hills High School.

The three male victims were identified by their coach and teammates from the Mission Viejo Soccer Club as Alex Sotelo, Matthew Melo and Brandon Moreno. Alex and Matthew were ninth-graders at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, and Brandon was in eighth grade at Carl Hankey Middle School.

On Monday, as students returned to class, there was a shared sense of grief. Counselors fanned out through the school district, teachers encouraged students to express their feelings by writing letters to the families of those who were killed, and the empty classroom desks stood as reminders of what had happened.

"We all felt the loss," said sophomore Michael Contreres, 15. "Everybody knew that that could have been any one of us."

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