Substitute teacher Erin Andrews was on her way to pick up her daughter at volleyball practice Tuesday afternoon in Lodi when an SUV in oncoming traffic blew by her so fast she was instantly fixated with one thought.
“My heart sunk into my stomach,” the 39-year-old Andrews said Wednesday by phone. “I thought I was going to throw up.
“I thought, ‘There is going to be a major crash.’”
Andrews estimated the brown SUV, possibly a Chevy Tahoe, was racing at 100 mph, swerving back and forth on the two lanes of South Ham Lane. The driver was clutching a cellphone to his right ear, she said.
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“He looked angry, like he was on a mission,” Andrews said.
Minutes later, five people from one family, including a pregnant woman, were dead and eight others were injured at an intersection near Lodi Middle School and Lodi Memorial Hospital.
The accident, which occurred just before 5:30 p.m., involved six cars, with all the dead from one of the vehicles, a Ford pickup truck that appeared to have been nearly cut in half, according to witnesses.
Lodi police said no arrests have been made and that sorting out the cause of the crash could be a lengthy process. Lt. Sierra Brucia confirmed that police were following up witness reports of one driver being on a cellphone. They are also investigating whether drugs or alcohol were involved.
“This is a major accident,” Brucia said. “It would take several months to investigate, this thing is so fluid.”
One witness, Dede Frey of Lodi, went to police headquarters Wednesday to report that she saw what may have been the SUV involved about 10 minutes before the crash with a smaller vehicle chasing it.
“It was reckless driving,” Frey said. “They were going at least 60 mph.”
Brucia said that in his 19 years in Lodi he has never heard of an accident involving more victims and that the carnage could have been worse if it had not been for medical personnel streaming from the nearby hospital to help.
Grieving friends of the victims gathered at the crash site Wednesday to remember the dead. The Mexican Consulate in Sacramento identified them as a family whose next of kin were being contacted in Mexico with news of the tragedy.
“Officials from this consulate general are in contact with the family of the deceased to provide them with the necessary consular and legal assistance, helping them with the proceedings for the transfer of the remains to the state of Guerrero in Mexico, and monitoring the condition of the Mexican nationals who survived the accident,” the consulate said in a statement.
A spokeswoman there identified the dead as Luís Miranda, 32; Viviana Rodriguez, 31, who was seven months pregnant; and their children, 12-year-old Irving, 6-year-old José and 5-year-old Stephanie. The couple’s 9-year-old son, whose name was not released, was in critical condition late Wednesday.
Brucia said the father, his 12-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter died at the scene. The mother and José died later at a hospital.
Overall, the toll of injured crash victims included four who were hospitalized and four who were treated at the scene and released, Brucia said. One of those hospitalized was a 28-year-old man in critical condition who was believed to be the driver of the brown SUV.
Police said five cars were directly involved in the crash. A sixth car – a Lexus parked about 300 feet away – was added to the count because a wheel from the crash flew off and hit it.
The four siblings of the Miranda family were students at Lodi schools, prompting officials to send phone messages to parents and offer counseling for students who need it, said Catherine Pennington, assistant superintendent of elementary education for the Lodi Unified School District.
“It’s been a terrible day,” Pennington said. “We’re so terribly saddened by this.”
Irving Miranda was a seventh-grader at Lodi Middle School, a member of the soccer team who “was delightful, a good student liked by his peers, as were the others,” she said.
José was a first-grader and Stephanie a kindergarten student at Heritage Elementary School. Their brother, who was on life support Wednesday, was a fourth-grader there.
“We’re just devastated,” Pennington said. “I’ve been in the district for 38 years and I don’t immediately recall an entire family being affected like this in this way.”
The speed limit on portions of Ham Street is 40 mph, although near the crash site at an intersection controlled by a light the limit is 25 mph if schoolchildren are present.
By midmorning Wednesday, there were few signs of the tragedy. The pieces of vehicles and broken glass that littered the site had been removed, leaving two growing memorials of flowers, stuffed teddy bears and a large cross with the word “grace” on it.
The scene was much different Tuesday night.
Andrews had been driving with her 7-year-old son Peja when the SUV raced by her. She drove on to pick up her daughter at volleyball practice, where she learned there had been a crash.
The volleyball coach was so rattled she did a head count of her players to be sure they all were safe. Andrews later drove to the site in her Honda Pilot to see what had happened and said she was horrified.
Caution tape blocked off an area filled with the wreckage of cars and trucks, some bodies were covered by tarps, and bystanders told her they had watched rescue workers futilely perform CPR on the pregnant woman.
“People on the scene said it was the saddest thing they had ever seen,” she said.
Andrews did not want to get to close to the carnage because she did not want her son to see the scene.
But there was little she could do to control her emotions.
“I stood there and cried,” she said, “just crying because it could have been me if the timing had been different. … He just had such total disregard for human life.”