After risking his life working as an electrical engineer on U.S. military projects in northern Afghanistan, Mustafa Rafi believed he had found a safe haven for his family in Sacramento County.
But less than two weeks after settling his family into a modest apartment, the 33-year-old was killed Sunday morning and his 8-year-old son suffered life-threatening injuries after a driver suspected of texting while at the wheel swerved into the bicycles they were riding in front of their complex, authorities said.
Haroon Paikan, a friend and fellow civil engineer who worked with him in Afghanistan, said Rafi had applied for a special visa to come to the United States two years ago. He said Rafi had feared that his work for U.S. forces – on Army Corps of Engineer projects in the Afghan provinces of Balkh and Kunduz – put him in danger of being killed by Taliban forces.
On Sunday, Paikan, who moved to Sacramento five months ago, said he couldn’t fathom his friend dying at the hands of a driver who was checking a text message.
“This is why this is so sad that this happened to him and his family,” Paikan said as fellow Afghan immigrants gathered at another apartment complex, near the crash scene in the 2400 block of Edison Avenue in unincorporated Sacramento County. “They came here for a new life. But the security situation in Afghanistan didn’t kill him. An accident here did.”
California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Officer Jenna Berry said the father and son were riding west on Edison Avenue, west of Horseshoe Drive, when the car struck them at 9:40 a.m. The CHP said the victims were not wearing bicycle helmets.
Authorities didn’t disclose the names of the victims, but Paikan and acquaintances at the Edison Avenue apartment complex where the family lived identified them as Mustafa Rafi and his son, Omar.
Berry said the 25-year-old driver of a 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix, identified by the CHP as Desmen Lashonne Carrino of Sacramento, was looking down at a cellphone when he drifted into the bike lane while also heading west on Edison. Drugs or alcohol were not factors in the incident, she said.
Witnesses said a second son was walking on the sidewalk nearby Rafi and Omar. The second son escaped unharmed.
Kirk Vergith said he looked out from his apartment and saw the father toppled on the hood of the moving car. He said the man then fell from the car onto the road and the bike slid off in another direction as the vehicle continued on.
“I was shouting, ‘Stop the car! Stop the car!’” Vergith said. He said another vehicle followed the Grand Prix as it came to a stop about a block and a half down the road. Vergith said he joined the driver of the trailing vehicle and walked the Grand Prix driver back to the scene of the crash.
“He was just standing around,” Vergith said of Carrino. “He hadn’t reached a point of realization” of what had happened.
Another witness to the aftermath of the incident, Antwan Fleings, 27, said he saw the injured son running up the road, bleeding, to check on his father before paramedics secured him to a stretcher.
The father was transported to Mercy San Juan Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The son was taken to UC Davis Medical Center, where he was listed in critical condition Sunday night.
Carrino was not arrested. However, Berry said, the incident remains under investigation and “charges are pending.”
Neighbor Nasir Ahman, 29, who met Rafi just 10 days ago, said he had moved to Sacramento with his wife and four children, two boys and two girls.
“His wife doesn’t speak English,” Ahman said. “She has no one here.”
Another neighbor, Lodin Solhdaost, 30, who described himself as a refugee of the Afghan war, said they had all come looking for safety.
“We came here to save our lives,” Solhdaost said.