In his 17 years of responding to traffic collisions, California Highway Patrol Officer D.C. Williams had never experienced anything as “horrific” as the fiery crash that killed two women and four young children.
Testifying Friday at the trial of 71-year-old Richard Lopez, who’s charged with six misdemeanor counts of vehicular manslaughter in connection with the crash, Williams described what he saw and heard at 3:30 a.m. on June 28, 2016.
Williams was the first officer to arrive at the scene of a traffic collision in the southbound lanes of Interstate 5, just south of Gorman School Road. Another CHP officer was with him.
When he spotted a minivan on fire, he grabbed a 5-pound fire extinguisher, he told the San Fernando courtroom.
Deputy District Attorney Jamie Castro asked him: “You, yourself, used a fire extinguisher?”
“Correct,” Williams said.
“Was it useful at all?” she asked him.
“Not at all,” he told her.
She pressed him for details.
“The right, rear-side door was open, so that’s where I went,” Williams said.
Castro asked him what happened.
“When I tried to put out the fire, it just blew the flames back,” he said.
After giving a graphic description of the victims, Williams told the court: “There was nothing else we could do.”
The two women who died inside the burning minivan were Connie Wu Li, and Flora Kuang, both 33. The children killed in the same vehicle were Jayden Li, 5; Lucas Li, 3; Sky Ng, 4; and Venus Ng, 2.
“The people inside the minivan were already lost,” Williams said.
Lopez, wearing wire-rim glasses and a black suit jacket, sat quietly beside his lawyer. He is accused of running into the back of the minivan with his big rig.
The court learned Friday there were two traffic collisions — an initial crash involving a BMW that rear-ended the minivan, a 2016 Toyota Sienna, and a second crash, in which Lopez is accused of rear-ending the same minivan with the big rig he was driving.
Williams explained that he was assigned to investigate the first crash and that the second fatal crash was assigned to a specialized accident reconstruction team known as the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team.
He told the court he concluded from his investigation that the BMW rear-ended the minivan.
The MAIT program was set up in 1978, when the severity and intricacy of traffic collisions dictated the need for more intensive investigations to determine subtle collision and injury causes.
The objective of the MAIT program is to provide the CHP with the means to conduct in-depth investigations and analyses of major traffic collisions throughout the state. The team’s Investigations include the reconstruction of an incident and a study of the factors that may have contributed to the incident.
Williams testified Friday he assisted in the MAIT investigation by interviewing the people involved in the crash.
Prosecutors allege that the tractor-trailer Lopez was driving crashed into the minivan, and it then erupted in flames and went down an embankment.
The commercial truck driver had not rested the legally mandated 10 hours after allegedly driving for more than 15 hours, according to the criminal complaint.
Under cross-examination, defense lawyer Ben Mironer asked Williams if he was trained to spot “symptoms of intoxication,” such as “red watery eyes.” Mironer asked him if red watery eyes could be symptoms of fatigue. Williams said yes.
“We look for symptoms of intoxication, and at the time, there was no indication of alcohol and no smell of alcohol, nothing out of the ordinary,” Williams said.
Mironer asked him: “Did you notice whether or not Mr. Lopez showed any signs of fatigue?”
Williams told him: “More than likely not. We just dealt with a horrific scene. My focus wasn’t there, dealing with what I had seen putting the fire out.”
Williams told the court that the driver of the minivan approached him after his attempts to extinguish the fully engulfed vehicle.
“He asked if his family was OK. Unfortunately, I told him they were all gone,” Williams said.
A second witness was also called to the stand Tuesday — a veteran trucker who said he swerved to avoid hitting the minivan “protruding into the lane.”
Victor Ficek told the court he’s been driving trucks for more than 34 years, with many jobs requiring he drive through the Grapevine.
At the time of the crash, Ficek pulled over to the side of the freeway and phoned 911.
The 911 call was played in court and jurors heard Ficek report a hazard on the roadway, namely the minivan protruding into the lanes.
On the 911 call, Ficek describes “a hazard” on the freeway after “a couple of cars got into it… one of the vehicles was rear-ended pretty bad and didn’t make it over to the shoulder.”
At one point, he tells the dispatcher: “the bumper is hanging off of it.”
The trial is scheduled to continue Monday.