A car crashed into a tree, split in half and then burst into flames on one of Newport Beach’s widest and busiest streets Monday evening, claiming the lives of five teenagers and leaving questions about what caused one of the worst wrecks in city history, police said.
The injuries to two of the victims were so severe that the county coroner was using fingerprints to confirm their identities. The victims’ identities were expected to be released Tuesday afternoon.
Firefighters and police responded to the scene just north of Jamboree Road and Island Lagoon Drive at 5:20 p.m., according to Newport Beach Police Department spokeswoman Kathy Lowe.
The sedan, a late-model Infiniti, veered off the road and into the center divider, where it struck a planted tree, split and then caught fire, Lowe said.
Four of the youths were ejected from the vehicle, and another was partially ejected, police said.
Of the five, four were pronounced dead at the scene, and one was taken to the trauma center at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo and pronounced dead, according to Lowe.
“This is such a tragic accident when you have one car and all five occupants are deceased,” Lowe said.
Police said it was too early to tell if alcohol played a factor in the crash, but they did say they believe a high rate of speed was a factor.
A toxicology test, which is standard in cases like this, will be performed Thursday, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jim Amormino.
The speed limit on the downhill stretch of Jamboree Road where the Monday crash occurred is 55 mph, Lowe said.
The Newport Beach Fire Department dispatched five units and 14 personnel, said Capt. Glenn White.
A small debris field stretched for several blocks around the accident site, which took place close to the Newport Beach Police Station, Fashion Island and the Back Bay.
Though it was hard to see under a purple-hued sky, a twisted block of metal could be seen beyond the yellow police tape.
Lowe could not say with certainty whether this was the worst car accident 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 June 2011. That 10-car crash claimed three lives. Among those who died was a former Corona del Mar High School track star.
White, who was on duty at the Balboa Fire station, said at 5:23 p.m. the NBFD was dispatched to initial reports of multiple vehicles with the possibility of pedestrians being struck.
“When we arrived we found what we thought were two vehicles,” he 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.
Of the five units to respond, each was from Newport: two engines, a truck, a medic unit and a battalion chief.
It took four or five minutes to put the fire out and make sure it was completely extinguished because of possible oil or gas leak.
The fifth passenger who was alive at the scene was attended to quickly. NBFD Paramedics were able to get the patient off-scene within a few minutes.
That patient, he said, was “completely ejected and laying on the pavement,” so they were able to move them quickly.
“I’ve been on duty for almost 30 years, and I’ve seen some terrible vehicular accidents,” he said. “This was, if not the worst, one of the worst I’ve ever seen.”
He added that, “you had poor guys up there who had only been on a couple years.”
The timing of the tragedy, a national holiday, wasn’t lost on the veteran firefighter.
“Now Memorial Day for those families won’t be just Memorial Day any more,” and that any time such tragedies occur on holidays, it makes for an extra painful reminder for families.