Though all of her relatives had gathered at the family's Buena Park home Sunday night, Lidia Hernandez's 15th birthday cake--white with pink roses--sat on the kitchen table untouched.
They had come together the previous day for a party, known as a quinceanera in the culture of the family's native Mexico, the time, according to one of the girl's uncles, that a father tells his daughter "she is grown, she is the bird ready to fly free."
But the celebration had been abruptly ended by news that one of her brothers, 14-year-old Alfredo Hernandez Jr., whom they called Freddy, had been killed in an automobile wreck shortly after the \o7 quinceanera \f7 ceremony at St. Pius V Catholic Church in Buena Park on Saturday afternoon. The next day, members of the family huddled together at the house for a wake.
The uncle, Francisco Porras, said, "We hope that Freddy flies free now too."
Fingering a bloodstained Bible that they said Freddy had clutched in the moments before death, family members talked on their porch about the celebration that had turned so suddenly into tragedy.
Lidia Hernandez said that after the birthday ceremony, her brother had insisted on going home to exchange his tuxedo for more casual clothing before the reception began. He climbed into a beige 1983 Toyota truck driven by a friend, 17-year-old Ovidiu Cozac of Buena Park. Cozac's mother and sister had attended the \o7 quinceanera\f7 , though the boys had only known each other a few months.
A Buena Park police report quoted Cozac's sister, whose name was not noted, as saying that her brother had taken "the keys to the truck out of his mother's purse without her knowledge or permission." Cozac was also driving without a license, said Buena Park Police Sgt. Terry Branum, although a Hernandez family member said Cozac had a learner's permit. But only the two minors were in the truck.
Cozac admitted Sunday night that "I don't have no license" and that "my mom told me not to take it (the truck) and I still did."
About 2 miles from the church--and about 3 blocks from the boys' homes--Misty Freed, 18, was backing out of a driveway at her new apartment in the 8100 block of 4th Street, police said. "She was just moving in that day to her first place on her own," Branum said.
Cozac was traveling "at a high rate of speed," Branum said. In a telephone interview, the Buena Park High School sophomore, recovering from a sore back, said he was speeding. "I was going 35 or 40; I was supposed to go 25 or 30." Branum said Cozac told police he honked his horn and tried to swerve as he slammed on his brakes, but the truck broadsided Freed's car, then flipped onto its right side.
Cozac, Freed and a passenger in her car, 17-year-old Sharon Hess of Buena Park, were all wearing seat belts, police said, but Hernandez was not. He was partially ejected from the passenger window and crushed when the truck rolled onto that side, Branum said. The Bible was found near his head.
"He (might) have survived had he had a seat belt on," Branum added. "None of the other three suffered more than minor injuries." The survivors were treated at the crash site by paramedics and did not require hospitalization, he said.
About 30 minutes later, police said, the boy was pronounced dead on arrival at Martin Luther Hospital Medical Center in Anaheim. The crash was still being investigated and no charges or citations had been issued, police said.
"He was my best friend," Cozac said. "I'm going to regret this for the rest of my life."
Relatives and friends quietly entered the Hernandezes' small wood-frame home on Stanton Avenue on Sunday night to offer their condolences to the parents. Alfredo Hernandez Sr. is the manager of the Big Tee Burger in La Mirada, and his wife, Lidia, is a seamstress at a tennis shoe factory.
The father was visibly shaken and too emotional to speak about his son for long. His dead son's sweater was returned to him on Sunday, and he broke down in tears and went inside the home. His wife remained in a bedroom mourning.
As they greeted visitors, Alfredo's siblings--Lidia, Jesse, 7, and Jimmy, 5--flipped through the scruffy Bible, which they said belonged to the driver of the truck, and pictures that were taken outside the church just moments before Freddy "took off" with his friend. A video of the noon Mass also was made.
By Sunday evening, Lidia Hernandez had made all the arrangements for her brother's funeral. Mass will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Pius V, the same church where her father "deemed her a senorita," Porras said. The funeral will follow at Forest Lawn Mortuary in Cypress.
"He was very popular in school," Lidia Hernandez boasted of her brother, who attended Buena Park Junior High School. She hopes to persuade the principal there to "fly the flag or something" today to mark her brother's death.
She remains composed for the most part, she said. .
"We were close. We used to wrestle, go to the skating rink, go to football games," Lidia said, smiling. "I was on the letter guard for parades, part of the band auxiliary, and he would cheer and wave at me."
She sighed. Freddy was very popular, she said.
"What can we do? He's dead. Right now I'm taking the responsibility for things. My mom lost a baby, 12 years ago, so this is the second child she's lost."