WESTMINSTER — Three Carson High School students died and two other people were injured on the San Diego Freeway early Friday morning in what authorities describe as one of the worst accidents to occur in the area in recent memory.
All three students survived an initial collision in the northbound lanes of the freeway. But minutes later, they were struck by two other vehicles as they stood by a damaged car near the freeway's concrete center divider, authorities said.
Police officers and other emergency personnel found bodies and debris strewn across the freeway, which had to be shut down for more than two hours.
"It was just a mess out there. . . . It was an ugly one," said Capt. Craig Campbell of the Westminster Fire Department. "Access to the victims was difficult because the bodies were lying in the traffic lanes."
Investigators questioned motorists at the scene of the 12:35 a.m. accident, saying it appeared the drivers were unable to stop on time and struck the youths as they stood on the freeway near the Springdale Street overpass.
"It is one of the most tragic accidents that we've had this year," said Officer Joan Rivas of the California Highway Patrol's Westminster office.
Killed were William Pecor, 17; his girlfriend, Joannie Bryant, 16; and their friend, Nora Busteed, 18. All were Carson residents.
The initial accident occurred when a Chevrolet Corvair, driven by Pecor's 19-year-old brother, Clinton Pecor Jr., went out of control in the freeway's car-pool lane and sideswiped a Toyota Celica in the next lane that was occupied by William Pecor and four other people.
The Corvair hit the center divider with such force that its engine broke free and flew across the freeway as the car flipped over and came to a stop in the car-pool lane.
"Everyone got out of their cars and were fine after the accident. But it's when the occupants inside the Celica ran across traffic and went to the center divider to help their friends that everything occurred," Rivas said.
Six people were standing in the three-foot-wide freeway center divider when a Nissan Pathfinder traveling in the car-pool lane crashed into the overturned vehicle, flipped over and struck William Pecor. He died on the way to the hospital, Rivas said.
"I was in the car-pool lane when I hit some wreckage," said Thomas Wilton Parker, 26, of Rancho Palos Verdes, the driver of the Pathfinder. "It was completely black. I didn't see any chrome or flares or anything, and the lights from oncoming traffic did not light it up."
A Chevrolet Blazer traveling in the No. 1 lane swerved into the car-pool lane to avoid the upside-down Corvair, which had been pushed into that lane by the Pathfinder. The Blazer struck Bryant and Busteed, Rivas said.
Bryant was pronounced dead at the scene. Busteed died later at Long Beach Memorial Center after being taken off of life-support systems.
William Pecor's sister said Friday evening that the two carloads of teen-agers were on their way home from a birthday party at a pizza parlor in Fountain Valley when the accident occurred.
"My brother, Clint, saw them get killed," said Debra Pecor, 27, one of 10 children in the family. "He's devastated--blaming himself because they went across the freeway to check on him and they got killed instead. He wishes they could do the whole night over again."
Parker and his girlfriend, Mercedes Bonham, 23, of Downey were taken to Los Alamitos Medical Center, where they were treated for minor injuries and later released.
"I was traveling at the normal speed, going home," Parker said. "If they had flashers or flares, it would have been a different story. It just wouldn't have happened. This is just an absolute tragedy."
Bonham said she remembers little about the accident.
"They told us if we hadn't been wearing seat belts, we would be dead," she said. "When it happened, I closed my eyes tight because the glass began flying. I could hear people crying, but I wasn't sure what happened."
Rivas said the tragedy could have been avoided if the victims had used a freeway call box instead of running across the freeway.
"It's safer to stay on the right shoulder and get on the call box," she said. "It's so sad, because they all would have been OK. They would have had minor injuries."
Joseph Ekbom, 19, said he was sitting in the back of the Corvair when "the car started spinning, went sideways and flipped over two or three times. It all happened so fast. I thought I was going to die."
Ekbom, who suffered only minor cuts and bruises, said the group grew up together in Carson and were all very close friends.
"I feel emotionally drained after watching my friends die," he said Friday night. "I saw it all happen."
Ekbom said Bryant saved Clint Pecor's life by pushing him out of the way of an oncoming car before she herself was fatally struck.
"Clint is taking this really hard," he said. "He was standing right there on the side of the freeway when his brother died."
Ekbom said he was asleep at the time of the initial collision but said no one had been drinking and he did not think the cars were racing.
No charges have been filed against any of the drivers, and no evidence of alcohol or drugs was found.