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Debris Blamed in Fiery Crash

Accident: Officials say metal piece on roadway punctured gas tank and sparked blaze in minivan. Mother dies of burns one day after three children perished in the vehicle.

May 06, 1997|JEFF LEEDS and MATEA GOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A piece of metal lying in the street punctured the gas tank of a minivan and sparked a fire that engulfed the vehicle and killed three children and their mother, authorities said Monday.

Connie Perez, 31, was apparently driving three of her children home from a day trip Sunday evening when the van passed over the piece of metal on Washington Boulevard in Commerce, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said. Perez heard a pop from behind the dashboard of her 1988 Ford Aerostar moments before it erupted in flames, investigators said.

The van crashed into a palm tree at the side of the street, and a passerby helped Perez escape. She was rushed to St. Francis Medical Center for treatment of second- and third-degree burns that covered 95% of her body. She died there Monday afternoon before she could be transported to a fully equipped burn center, authorities said.

The flames ravaged the van too quickly to allow rescuers to save the children, whose identities must be confirmed with dental records. But neighbors and classmates identified them as Chelsea, 4; Marco, 7, and Karla, 10. Another daughter, identified as Shantal, 12, was not in the van.

Investigators believe the jagged metal rectangle they found at the accident site is a device used to attach mud flaps to tractor-trailer rigs. The 2-foot-long piece of metal punctured the plastic gas tank under the hood of the van, creating sparks as it was dragged along the street, and ignited the fire, authorities speculate.

A passing driver saw a trail of flames stretch behind the impaled van as gas leaked onto the pavement, sheriff's officials said.

"He saw a line of fire going down Washington, and at the end he saw the van fully engulfed in flames," Sgt. Greg Collins said. "It was a one-in-a-bizillion tragic accident, a freak thing."

Sheriff's officials said investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the California Highway Patrol were looking into the crash. Ford planned to send its own investigators to review the case, but said the crash appeared to be an unprecedented accident.

"We stand by our products," said company spokesman Dave Giroux. "In terms of fuel system integrity, we go well beyond government regulations."

Giroux said the company performs crash tests at up to 50 mph on vehicles such as the Aerostar to ensure that internal parts do not crumple or cut into the fuel tank in the event of a collision, although it had not been determined whether such tests were conducted when Perez's vehicle was manufactured a decade ago.

Dean Bakshi, Perez's neighbor in the sunny Norwalk cul-de-sac where she lived with her children, her brother and her mother, said that Perez had been having "problems" with the van recently, but didn't know whether she had taken it to a mechanic.

Neighbors said Perez had moved into her modest, one-story pink house last year after separating from her husband, who lives in Texas and had been receiving visits from the children periodically. She found a job working for a dentist, and the children quickly struck up friendships with others in the neighborhood. Chelsea was a spirited youngster who often tagged along with her sister, Karla; Marco was often seen riding his bike and playing soccer with his schoolmates; Karla played with Barbie dolls and read books with her friends across the street.

Michael Martinez, 6, walked to the house from Paddison Elementary School, where Marco and Karla attended second and fourth grade, respectively, to drop off a paper Cinco de Mayo decoration he had made as a tribute to his friend Marco.

"He was a real good reader and artist," Martinez said. "I wish Marco could have stayed."

Bakshi placed a bouquet of yellow flowers on the Perez's porch.

"Till the day I die, I will never forget their faces," he said. "It's like blisters on my heart."

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