Newport Beach public safety workers on Tuesday grappled with the aftermath of what appeared to be an historic tragedy, trying to understand how a fast-moving luxury sedan veered from a busy thoroughfare and into a tree, where it caught fire and claimed the lives of five high school students.
Police and firefighters could not recall a car accident, at least in the last three decades, that ended so many lives.
“I’ve been on duty for almost 30 years, and I’ve seen some terrible vehicular accidents,” Newport Beach Fire Capt. Glenn White said. “This was, if not the worst, one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Police spokeswoman Kathy Lowe could not say with certainty whether the car accident had the highest death toll in modern Newport Beach.
“This is certainly the worst in recent memory,” Lowe said. “Absolutely.”
The last accident of great magnitude took place along Mariner’s Mile in January 2011. That 10-car crash claimed three lives, a former Corona del Mar High School track star among them.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the Mariner’s Mile crash was in June 2011. It happened on Jan. 15, 2011.
Also memorable was a 1997 crash involving 10 youths piled into an SUV that crashed, killing one and injuring several others, including a 17-year-old, who fell into an 11-week coma.
Monday’s wreck left three girls and two boys dead. Each attended high school in Irvine.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department identified the victims as:
Abdulrahman M. Alyahyan, 17, a senior at University High School — the driver.
Nozad Al Hamawendi, 17, a junior at Irvine High School.
Cecilia D. Zamora 17, a junior at Irvine High.
Aurora C. Cabrera, 16, a sophomore at Irvine High.
Robin A. Cabrera, 17, a senior at Irvine High.
The Cabreras were sisters.
Someone with Alyahyan’s name received a trio of driving citations earlier this year, according to Orange County Superior Court records.
Police on Tuesday evening could not confirm whether it was the same person.
The April violations, which appear as “cited and released,” include violation of provisional license driving restrictions, prohibited modification of an exhaust system and material that obstructs or reduces the driver’s view.
The crash took place on Jamboree Road near Island Lagoon Drive at 5:20 p.m., not far from the Newport Beach Police Department, the Back Bay, Fashion Island and the Newport Beach Country Club, where members reported hearing loud noises.
The speed limit on the downhill stretch of Jamboree is 55 mph, but it is unknown how fast Alyahyan was driving the night of the crash.
Police said it was too early to tell whether alcohol played a factor in the crash, but they did say they believe a high rate of speed was a factor.
The sedan, a late-model Infiniti, veered into the center divider, where it struck a planted tree. Four of the youths were ejected from the vehicle, and another was partially ejected.
The Newport Beach Fire Department dispatched five units and 14 personnel.
“When we arrived we found what we thought were two vehicles,” White said. “One was on fire.”
Upon closer inspection they found it was just the one car — he said it looked like a sedan — that was split in half.
The tree was not on fire, and the car had traveled maybe 100 more feet, he said.
It took four or five minutes to put the fire out and make sure it was extinguished because of possible oil or gas leak.
One passenger was found alive at the scene.
That patient, White said, was “completely ejected and laying on the pavement,” so they were able to move them quickly.
Paramedics were able to get the patient off-scene within a few minutes and to the trauma center at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.
The patient was pronounced dead at the hospital, according to Lowe.
The injuries to two of the victims were so severe that the county coroner used fingerprints to confirm their identities.
A toxicology test, which is standard in cases like this, will be performed Thursday, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jim Amormino.
Irvine students were out of school Tuesday for a staff development day, spokesman Ian Hanigan said, but the district will provide counselors for students.
Firefighters took the crash hard.
“You had poor guys up there who had only been on a couple years,” White said.
The timing of the tragedy, a national holiday commemorating the nation’s war dead, wasn’t lost on the veteran firefighter.
“Now Memorial Day for those families won’t be just Memorial Day any more,” White said.