Five people were killed Tuesday morning when a sport utility vehicle skidded off Interstate 5, rolled down an embankment and burst into flames, authorities said.
Witnesses to the Mission Viejo crash said they ran down the embankment to try to help, but the blaze forced them back.
The Orange County coroner's office said the victims were a 37-year-old man, a 33-year-old woman and three other females whose ages were not released.
The accident happened about 10:25 a.m. just south of La Paz Road, said Officer Gabe Montoya, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. The vehicle came to rest on its hood behind the El Paseo shopping center.
Witness accounts indicated that one of the SUV's tires blew out and the driver lost control, Montoya said. But officers said they would have to analyze skid marks and vehicle debris before they could say what caused the crash.
Daniel Lopez, 24, an employee at a nearby Outback Steakhouse, was standing outside the restaurant when he saw the SUV slam into a light pole and roll down the embankment.
He said he took out his cellphone to shoot video of the crash, then ran down with several other employees to try to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher. But he said the flames were too intense.
"I was in shock," he said. "We were scared. It's so sad."
The vehicle was still engulfed in flames when Orange County Fire Authority units arrived on the scene, Capt. Greg McKeown said. Those in the car were dead when the firefighters arrived, the spokesman said.
A small crowd gathered nearby and watched as workers slowly pulled five bodies from the SUV, wrapped them in white blankets and put them in a coroner's van. A canine unit searched the surrounding bushes to confirm that no passengers had been thrown from the vehicle.
A 37-year-old mother of five, who was on her way to work when she came upon the aftermath of the crash, stopped to watch.
"It's just sad," she said. "You wonder where these people were going. What were they doing when this happened?"
Officers at the scene identified the charred wreckage as a Chevrolet Tracker with a California license plate.
Most of the paint was burned off, so it was not immediately possible to determine the color.
The coroner's office will perform autopsies on the crash victims.
Authorities are asking witnesses to call CHP Officer Eric Barnard at (949) 487-4000.
Times staff writers Tony Barboza in Orange County and Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.