Five young friends were heading home from Denny’s. A wrong-way driver ended their lives

Cristian Lopez (left), Yaneth Lopez (center) and Raquel Lopez (right) were among the victims.
Cristian Lopez (left), Yaneth Lopez (center) and Raquel Lopez (right) were among the victims. Courtesy of Itzel Ramirez

The five young friends were traveling back to Williams from a Denny’s in Woodland early Sunday morning when a driver entered an offramp to head the wrong way down Interstate 5.

All five were killed when the wrong-way car collided head-on with theirs in the fast lane of northbound I-5 around 12:30 a.m., according to the California Highway Patrol.

The collision sent flames shooting up into the brisk morning air when both vehicles caught fire. All five friends died at the scene, as did the the solo driver heading the wrong way.

According to friends and family, newlyweds Cristian Lopez, 25, and Raquel Lopez, 21, were riding in the vehicle with Cristian’s younger sister, Yaneth Lopez, 19, as well as Kristian Paiz and Jessica Garcia, who were also a couple.

The Yolo County coroner has not released the identities of any of the victims. The Sacramento Bee is using the name spellings and ages based on interviews Monday with friends and family and, when possible, verification from online profiles.

The identity of the solo driver was not available Monday.

The five victims had gone to Denny’s and maybe to see a movie, said Daniel Lopez, younger brother to Cristian Lopez and Yaneth Lopez.

Or, as he knew them, Kitty and Lupe. The nickname “Kitty” stuck to Cristian Lopez because it was how he would introduce himself when he couldn’t say his name as a toddler. Yaneth was Lupe – short for Guadalupe, her middle name.

“They would make everyone laugh and smile,” Daniel Lopez said. “They have a lot of friends who love them.”

When he went to the hardware store in Williams on Monday to get materials for memorial crosses, the owner told him not to pay and that he would also cover the bill at the lumberyard where Lopez went next to get wood.

“Over 200 or 300 people came yesterday to say ‘I’m sorry,’ ” he said.

Cristian Lopez and Raquel Valencia married Nov. 4 after two or three years of living together. They were really funny to be around, Daniel Lopez said, always teasing each other and arguing playfully.

Yaneth Lopez graduated from Williams High School in June 2017 and was attending Butte College, said Ashley Lopez, her best friend. They weren’t related, though many believed otherwise.

“People always thought we were sisters,” she said. “One of our favorite things was summer because we would always be in the river or just go out and cruise and talk about life and those are some of the best memories.”

They were planning to move to Sacramento next year, she said. Ashley Lopez delayed enrollment at Sacramento State to wait for Yaneth Lopez to finish at Butte College and transfer to the university so they could start together.

“She was saving up for rent,” she said. “We had a plan.”

Yaneth Lopez was the kind of girl who would give a ride to someone stranded in the rain or bring food to homeless people she passed on the street, Daniel Lopez said.

“We were so close, me and her would always do everything together,” he said. “We were troublemakers for my mom, we were always getting in trouble together.”

Yaneth and Ashley Lopez were also close with Jessica Garcia, Ashley Lopez said. The three girls went to Williams High School together, though Garcia was a year or two older. Paiz was a couple years older than her, Ashley Lopez said.

Garcia was quiet, serious and a really great friend, she said. She was focused on her boyfriend of about four years, Kristian Paiz, and her future. Daniel Lopez said Garcia and Paiz were like siblings to him, too.

“They had my back,” he said.

Cristian Lopez was a father figure for his younger siblings, Daniel Lopez said. When their father returned to Mexico for a few years when Daniel was young, Cristian Lopez stepped in as a role model.

“He taught me how to do everything ... how to change a tire, how to change the oil in a car,” Daniel Lopez said. “How to tie my shoes, how to respect people, how to be better than he was – to not do the mistakes he did, you know?”

Wrong-way driving crashes are relatively rare nationwide but tend to be more severe than other crashes, according to the Federal Highway Administration. California’s Department of Transportation has been studying the problem since the 1980s, conducting regular data analysis showing the rate of wrong-way crashes has decreased over the years.

But in early 2015, there was a spike in fatal wrong-way collisions in the Sacramento and San Diego areas, prompting highway officials to add extra warning signs and sensors to certain offramps to alert the California Highway Patrol when someone entered the roadway going the wrong direction.

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said from Jan. 1, 2016, through April 15, 2016, the sensors went off 102 times. Seven of those cases resulted in collisions, one of which had an injury or a fatality. Fifty-six drivers were located and stopped by the CHP and 39 were not found.

Keaton said wrong-way crashes are often related to driving under the influence. When Caltrans evaluated the spate of fatal crashes in 2015, they discovered driving under the influence was a contributing factor 8 out of 9 times. Authorities have not yet determined whether alcohol or drugs played a role in Sunday’s crash.

A GoFundMe page established to benefit the Lopez, Valencia, Paiz and Garcia families had raised more than $8,600 as of Monday afternoon.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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