PALMDALE — Two of them were in love and had just started to talk about getting married. One enjoyed playing basketball and shooting pool and was about to join the Air Force. Another had already enlisted in the Navy. And yet another, a bit older than his friends, left behind four brothers and sisters, including one younger brother who was with him when he died.
These were the five young people killed Thursday in what authorities described as an apparent 100 mph race through traffic on the Antelope Valley Freeway.
They were friends headed south for some spring break fun "down below," as some folks here refer to the vast expanse of Los Angeles 100 miles away.
Tragedy struck when 17-year-old Vanessa Yusi lost control of her black Acura Legend and the car flew from the freeway, rolling several times before it came to rest at the bottom of a 75-foot embankment. Witnesses said the car appeared to have been in a race with three other vehicles. But the family and friends of the dead challenged that assertion on Friday.
Killed in the accident were John Batas, 18; John Chu, 25; Shaun Perez, 20, and Jovannie Solano, also 20. The four men died immediately, three of them flung from the car as it rolled down the hill. Vanessa survived the initial crash and was airlifted to a nearby hospital. She died hours later after undergoing surgery.
They were all from the Antelope Valley, four from Palmdale, one from Lancaster. By Friday morning, news of the deaths had spread around the valley.
Veane Jones stood in her driveway, tears streaming down her face, as a neighbor embraced her. The two didn't appear to even speak.
Jones is Perez's mother. For her, the loss was double. Perez and Vanessa were dating, and both families said the two intended to get married after she graduated in June.
Both worked at the Antelope Valley Mall, he in a kiosk called the Piercing Pagoda, she in a women's accessory store.
Jones said Perez had just landed a second job at Magic Mountain and was to begin work there next week. She said the couple planned to move into a house that Vanessa had inherited from a relative and was due to receive upon her graduation from high school.
"If I could choose a daughter-in-law, Vanessa would be the one," Jones said. "They were perfect together."
They planned to attend college after they were married, family members said.
Vanessa "was just one of those people who was always cool with everybody," said Kevin Morris, a junior at Palmdale's Highland High School who took her to the prom last year.
He said the two were just friends who decided to go to the dance together because neither had a date.
"She was somebody you could just kick it with," Kevin said. "She was just a good person. It's sad."
Several other students described her the same way.
Jarrod Burcham, a fellow senior and a football player, said he didn't even know Vanessa that well. She was just in one of his classes. But he broke into tears when he learned she was dead.
Popular and pretty as she was, Jarrod said, Vanessa was not stuck up.
"She wasn't mean to anybody," he said. "She made everybody happy."
A co-worker of Perez's at the Piercing Pagoda said the store's corporate officials had instructed her not to talk about the young man's death.
Tears then welled in her eyes.
"He was awesome," she said simply.
Lorne Bebault, Solano's mother, sat at her dining room table on Friday with a box of tissues, wiping away tears.
She said her son graduated from Highland High School last year and moved to Pomona, where he worked in a shoe factory.
"I really missed him because we'd take turns cooking," she said. "I taught him how, but he's better than me."
Bebault said Solano had enlisted in the Navy and had the option to begin serving either in May or November. She said he planned to receive training as a dental assistant and then to attend college to become a dentist when he got out of the service.
"He was very sensible," she said. "He had a very bright future."
Vicente Batas felt the same way about his son, John.
Batas said his son was respectful and did his chores around the house without complaining. The youth planned to join the Air Force when he finished school in June.
"He was a good son," Batas said.
Family members of John Chu, the oldest in the group, were too distraught to speak with reporters. Chu left behind four brothers and sisters, including a younger brother, Tim, who was in one of the other cars that witnesses said were racing with Vanessa's.
But friends and family of all those killed denied that there was any race. Most acknowledged that Vanessa may have been driving over the speed limit in an attempt to catch up with the others, but they said there was no organized race.
The accident happened, they insisted, when a white sport utility vehicle suddenly "cut off" Vanessa's Acura, forcing her to make an evasive maneuver.