MISSION VIEJO — Phillip Panetta died early Saturday morning doing something he loved: "downhilling" on his longboard skateboard.
The 19-year-old was zooming down a steep hill on Jeronimo Road with friends when he hit a raised lane marker in the middle of the street, lost his balance and fell. He was not wearing a helmet and suffered massive head injuries, according to the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
"He was a great kid," his mother, Barbara Chiulli, said tearfully. "You don't expect a child to die before you. He was well-loved. He was a good friend, always willing to help another in trouble."
The accident occurred at 1:25 a.m. between Arbolitos and Silleros in Mission Viejo. Panetta and two friends had gone there to skateboard after attending a Santa Margarita High football game.
Thomas Watson, 18, who had skateboarded down the hill ahead of Panetta, said they were going about 25 mph.
Watson said someone in a white Toyota told him Panetta was injured and then drove him up the hill to his comatose friend. The third skateboarder, Mike Thompson, 19, used a cell phone in his Jeep to call 911 and Panetta's stepfather.
"I just started freaking out," Watson said. "Me and Mike were both taking turns holding his hand and putting our hands on his heart to see if we could feel his heart beat. We were just trying to talk to him."
Panetta was pronounced dead on arrival to Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, said Sheriff's Lt. Orville King.
"He was a really cool guy," Watson said. "He didn't deserve it at all. I can't believe this happened. I expect him to walk in the door any minute and just chill like we always did."
Panetta graduated from Santa Margarita High in June and was hoping to attend cooking school in San Francisco. He had worked for a month as a host and busboy at Peppino's, an Italian restaurant in Mission Viejo. He had hoped to become a chef there, said manager Brian Christensen.
"All of the customers loved him," Christensen said. "Everyone here is really sickened by what's happened. It's something I have to live with because I gave him the night off."
"He was a hard worker and would have gone very, very far in life," he added. "He was really into having fun and had a lot of friends."
The neighborhood children also liked Panetta. "He was really nice," said 11-year-old Jennica Ninke. "He used to play with us, chase us and tickle us, and he would listen to us. He always asked us how we were doing."
His stepfather, Frank Chiulli, said a steady stream of friends has called or come by to console the family, and "everyone has said how pleasant a person he was to get along with."
The teenager's 1966 Chevrolet Malibu was parked in the driveway of the Chiulli home Saturday. He was planning to paint it midnight blue and usually kept his skateboard in the trunk in case he spotted a good hill.
"He died doing what he loved doing," said Mike Panetta, the victim's 15-year-old brother.
Mike Panetta said his brother had taken up longboarding six months ago and enjoyed tackling new hills with his friends.
"They just loved to do it, and I guess they just picked Jeronimo Road as a new challenge," the brother said.
Longboard skateboarding has surged in popularity in recent years. Skaters seek out hilly roads and parking structures where they can ride the 3- to 5-foot wooden planks with wheels.
"Since they are a longer board, they can go a lot faster" than conventional skateboards, said Blair Mardian of World Core Surf and Sport in San Clemente. "It's easier to keep your balance on the longboards, and you can carve on it, so it's more like snowboarding and surfing."
At Surfside Sport in Newport Beach, more than half of the skateboards sold are longboards, said assistant manager Jeff Caselman. Unfortunately, many who purchase the boards do not buy the helmets, wrist guards, knee pads and elbow pads, Caselman said.
"It can be pretty mellow if you use it to just cruise around, but longboards are very much designed for going downhill," Caselman said. "And it doesn't take long to get going out of control."
Caselman said he that while injuries are common, he has never heard of anyone who has died longboarding.
Barbara Chiulli, said she hopes some good will come from her son's death. "The important thing [to learn] here is for kids to wear helmets."
A rosary and visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. on Monday at O'Connor Laguna Hills Mortuary, 25301 Alicia Parkway. The funeral will be at 9 a.m. on Tuesday at St. Kilian Church at 26872 Estanciero Drive in Mission Viejo.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Phillip Panetta's name to Catholic Charities, 1506 Brookhollow Drive, Suite 112, Santa Ana, CA 92705.