‘I know they are still waiting for them to come home’: Family of couple killed in DUI crash look forward
It takes Dayana Saldana Meija a minute to collect herself.
Since the fatal car collision in Newport Beach that killed her brother and sister-in-law on Dec. 8, she’s been focused on taking care of the three children left behind.
She said she was doing all right. Better, she adds. Her voice still falters when she speaks about Henry Saldana Meija or Gabriela Andrade, or about her nieces, Samantha Belen, 1, Elena Sareen, 4, and Emma Sofia, 5.
What could she say about her brother?
About the sister she’d never had?
“As parents, they were very loving. They were always together,” Dayana Saldana Meija said from her Santa Ana home on Monday. “They went for a ride together that [Dec. 8] night. My brother used to work a lot, but he was taking a break from work and Gabby was a stay-at-home mom, so she was always with [the girls].”
The family had been in Newport Beach for Henry Saldana Meija to pick up a few of his things from the Resort At Pelican Hill, where he worked, and to view the city’s holiday lights.
The trip ended in tragedy when, prosecutors say, a 22-year-old Newport Beach woman ran a red light. The two cars collided near Newport Coast Drive and South Pelican Hill Road.
Saldana Meija, 27, and Andrade, 28, both of Santa Ana, died at the scene. Their three daughters were secured in the backseat of the family’s Nissan Versa.
The suspected DUI driver, Grace Elizabeth Coleman, remains in custody and is expected to appear for an arraignment hearing of her criminal charges at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana on Jan. 27, according to jail and court records. A civil lawsuit was filed against her and her family on behalf of the three children on Christmas Eve.
The civil lawsuit names Newport Beach resident Grace Elizabeth Coleman, the driver arrested in the Dec. 8 incident, and her parents, Newport Beach residents James and Kelli Coleman, as defendants.
Dayana Saldana Meija said the three girls returned to Santa Ana from Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo later that month, but returned with no shortage of injuries: Emma Sofia broke both of her legs and Elena Sareen and Samantha Belen each broke one leg. At first, Saldana Meija said they’d been afraid it would hurt if they moved too much.
But now they are playing and behaving more or less like other girls their age, she said — casts and all.
Quietly, Saldana Meija added: “They still miss my brother, you know.”
The family’s attorney, Brett Nemeth, organized a GoFundMe. Donations will be put toward medical and educational expenses.
All three are aware of what happened to their parents.
“Once they got home, there were not a lot of questions in the beginning, but once they got used to the house and not seeing them around, [the girls] would ask, ‘Where’s Mommy? Where’s Daddy?’” Saldana Meija said.
“I know them. I know they are waiting for them to come home,” she said.
The children have their own ideas on where their parents are now, and Saldana Meija said that she typically goes along with what they say.
“When they’re good, they’re playing around and stuff,” she said. “But sometimes they do get a little sad, then they do start asking. It’s only for a little while that they ask and I repeat what they say to me. ‘Remember, I told you. They’re up in the sky with God. They’re looking after you. They’re little angels now.‘”
Andrade met Henry Saldana Meija in either 2011 or 2013 — “it was a long time ago,” Dayana joked.
Jennifer Gutierrez, who is cousins with the Saldana Meijas, remembers Andrade as someone warm and kind. Gutierrez said she was always very friendly and welcoming to everyone.
Dayana Saldana Meija said that her brother, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. He was shy and quiet, but worked hard. Henry Saldana Meija was the kind of guy who would only joke with those he was confident with.
“They say opposites attract, so I guess that’s why they worked well together,” Dayana Saldana Meija said.
Gutierrez said that the two always “pushed through everything.”
Gutierrez said her fondest memory was when she and Saldana Meija collaborated to hold a frozen-themed birthday party for the oldest daughter’s fourth birthday in 2019. It was a surprise party and neither of the parents knew that they’d been organizing it. All of the work, she said, was worth it when they saw the look on Andrade’s face.
“I just try to think: What would Gabby do in this moment? What would my brother, what would he do?”
— Dayana Saldana Meija
Their last hurrah was just a few months before the accident, she said.
They’d gotten together at Andrade and Henry Saldana Meija‘s apartment. She, her sister, Henry, Dayana and Andrade all watched movies with the kids.
Once the children fell asleep, the four shared stories about their lives. Heart-to-heart conversations happened and Gutierrez said she remembers Henry saying that he wanted to work on being a better person and be better for his family, both immediate and extended.
“We all loved each other,” she said.
Dayana Saldana Meija remembers that for the last two weeks before the incident that her brother was often home with his three girls, and that when she came home from work, she’d usually find him in the kitchen making lunch for them.
Whatever they wanted, she said. Henry Saldana Meija was great in the kitchen. He’d always be experimenting with ingredients and recipes.
The three of them — Dayana, Gabby and Henry — had a connection, she said, and the memories that stand out to her the most are the little things like watching a movie together, having dinner. She said that morning before she headed into work, Dayana stopped by Gabby’s room to say goodbye for the day.
Gabby was the only person that Dayana hugged hi or goodbye.
She gave Dayana, who she called “Daya,” a hug and said, “OK, Daya, take care. Have a good day at work.”
Dayana said she’d see her later.
It’s a shock, Dayana Saldana Meija said, suddenly being responsible for three little girls. But she said she knew them and knew the way that Andrade and her brother raised and cared for them. She said she has the support of their extended family and that of the Andrade family especially in Gabby’s sisters, who are often stopping by.
“I just try to think: What would Gabby do in this moment? What would my brother, what would he do?” Saldana Meija said.
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