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As Fire Raged, No One Could Help

The teens who escaped the burning SUV in Upland tried to save the four inside, but flames prevented them. The car driver pleads not guilty.

September 10, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

As a San Bernardino man pleaded not guilty Thursday to felony drunk driving, vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run charges, family and friends gathered in Fontana to mourn the deaths of three sisters and their niece, killed Saturday in a fiery freeway crash.

"There's no words to explain how I feel," said Margarita Ochoa, 25, a sister of three of the victims.

"We were always together, and they were the best sisters, daughters and friends anyone could imagine. All of them were always only thinking about doing the best things in life -- to help others."

Three other passengers in the victims' vehicle survived the Upland crash, and recounted on Thursday its horrors.

"We asked if they were all right, and the only thing we heard was their screaming for help," said Miguel Gonzalez, 16, who with two others escaped the burning Suburban through a broken window and tried to pull the victims out from the front two rows.

"It was so hot, the fire consumed everything in seconds," he said.

"We felt so bad we couldn't do anything for them. I felt impotent. No one could help."

Killed in the Interstate 10 crash were Maria Gabriela Ochoa, 22, Ramona Ochoa, 20, Socorro Adriana Ochoa, 18, all of Fontana, and their 11-year-old niece, Norma Ochoa, of Pomona.

Maria Gabriela Ochoa was a shipping employee for a La Verne tile company; her two sisters were students at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga.

The Suburban, carrying the seven from a baptism party in Pomona, had slowed to avoid a mattress when it was struck from behind by a sedan driven by Alberto Vallejos, 33, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The Suburban flipped onto its roof and burst into flames. The three survivors -- Gonzalez, his brother Louis, 19, and Alfonso Chavez, 19 -- escaped by breaking out a back window and crawling out.

A passing motorist, Matt Carter, said two of the teenagers had to be pulled away from the vehicle as they tried to rescue the victims and the fuel tank apparently exploded.

Vallejos was arrested at his home an hour later on suspicion of fleeing the scene while intoxicated.

On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty to seven felony counts, including gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and hit and run resulting in deaths.

Vallejos was jailed on $1-million bail. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22.

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