Before a pickup truck went up in flames and a head-on crash left four people dead early Wednesday, two California Highway Patrol officers raced to stop the inevitable.
They were formulating a plan to stop a Toyota Prius traveling east on the westbound side of Highway 50, said a CHP spokesman, Officer Michael Bradley. Maybe they would get in front of her, sounding the siren and flashing their lights. Maybe they would lay a spike strip across the road to stop the car.
But as officers sped down the eastbound lanes, trying to outrun the wrong-way driver on the other side, they saw a blue pickup ignite.
No one survived the fiery 2:30 a.m. crash.
Three men in the pickup and the wrong-way driver, a woman in the black Prius, were declared dead at the scene, just east of Stockton Boulevard on Highway 50.
None of those involved was identified by officials Wednesday.
But Grace Bacareza of Stockton said her husband, Nick Bacareza, 58, was one of the men who died in the crash. She cried as she recalled her husband’s last moments, saying that he was heading from Sacramento back to his home in Stockton. He was with two friends, she said.
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the Prius was registered to Dante Torres, 63, of Carmichael.
Torres and his family live spread among several apartments in a complex near the intersection of Whitney and Mission avenues. The man’s landlord, Tina Licastro, said he has two daughters, likely in their 20s, who live with him in his apartment and an older son who lives with his own children nearby.
She described the family as “good people” and “great residents.” Licastro said her stomach sank when she heard about the crash and recognized the crushed black Prius appearing on the television news.
“I’m sure (the family) is heartbroken,” she said. “It’s devastatingly sad.”
The incident began about 2:25 a.m. when a citizen called 911 to report a Prius driving onto Highway 50 over the Harbor Boulevard exit ramp, Bradley said. The witness told dispatchers the car was going the wrong way in the westbound fast lane.
The Prius continued into Sacramento in the wrong direction, swerving at times. Another motorist reportedly saw her going in the wrong direction on the highway near 16th Street.
A minute later, the Prius slammed head-on into the pickup, a blue Ford F-150, just east of Stockton Boulevard. The impact of the crash sent the pickup careening out of its lane and into the path of a Hyundai Sonata.
It was after the second crash, CHP officials said, that the truck burst into flames. At least two of the men inside were badly burned.
The Hyundai driver suffered a bloody nose, perhaps due to his car air bag deploying.
Hours after the crash, the charred skeleton of the pickup and shattered Prius remained on the road, blocking the left-most lanes. As the sun rose, workers in yellow vests swept the street in an effort to remove any fuel or fluids that leaked from the cars in the collision.
All lanes reopened at about 7:30 a.m., but traffic congestion remained for some time, according to the CHP.
Bradley said the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office will determine if alcohol was a factor in the crash.
In his experience, Bradley said, when drivers go the wrong way on major roadways, such as Highway 50, substances tend to be involved.
“The most common reason is they’re drunk or intoxicated or have some kind of impairment,” he said. “They get on the freeway and know they have some kind of impairment and don’t want to be detected, so they go to what they think is the slow lane.”
On Jan. 10, a similar crash on Interstate 80 killed three young people from Placer County and injured Aaron Jordon Caudillo, whom prosecutors have accused of speeding, drunkenly, the wrong way on the highway with an open bottle of rum in his lap.
Caudillo spent nearly two weeks in the hospital after the black sedan officials said he was driving with its lights off slammed head-on into the teens’ Buick just after 2 a.m. Now, he sits in jail in lieu of $1 million bail as he waits for his next court appearance on May 5. If convicted of the charges against him – three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated – he could face up to 30 years in prison.
The teens who died in that crash were Kendra Langham, 18, Mathew Beardwit, 18, and Matthew Azar, 19.
Bradley said wrong-way drivers are fairly common – local CHP officers get called out to such incidents almost monthly. But, he added, officers can often intervene before tragedy strikes.
Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.