Students at Northwood High School in Irvine came to class Tuesday wearing white as a tribute to cheerleader Ashton Sweet, injured in a Memorial Day weekend crash involving a suspected drunk driver. Those students, amid tears, learned hours later that Ashton had been removed from life support and died.
The 14-year-old freshman and three other teenage girls were being taken home very early Sunday from a birthday party for one of them. About 1 a.m., the Mercedes-Benz they were riding in, driven by Michael Ghaemi, the father of one of the girls, was hit in the left side by a Toyota pickup near Culver Drive and Irvine Boulevard, according to police. The Mercedes then slid into a nearby light standard.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 03, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Irvine crash: An article in the June 1 LATExtra section about a traffic collision in Irvine involving a suspected drunk driver said one of the injured, Ashton Sweet, had died after being taken off life support. Sweet was pronounced dead but kept on a ventilator until her organs were harvested Wednesday.
The other girls, all students at Northwood High, also suffered injuries and were taken to area hospitals, as was Ghaemi. One of the girls, Krista Merassa, 15, remained hospitalized in guarded condition but is expected to survive, officials said.
Ghaemi said Tuesday night that he had gone to make sure the girls got home safely. "I'm a concerned parent," he said. "I went out to pick them up."
The girls were singing and having a good time, celebrating the 15th birthday of his daughter, Parisa, he recalled. She sat in the front, beside him.
"I saw this car pass a red light; we had the green light," Ghaemi said. "He came down on us."
Ashton was sitting behind Ghaemi and took the brunt of the collision, he said. When he got out of the car, he saw Ashton lying crumpled in the back seat.
She was taken to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, where she was kept on life support so doctors could assess whether her organs could be donated, said her mother, Elizabeth Sweet.
Tuesday afternoon at 1, "two doctors were on hand to pronounce her brain-dead," Elizabeth Sweet said. She later noted a cruel irony: Ashton's father, Gordon Sweet III, died in a car crash in 2003, when his truck rolled over on a North Dakota road.
At Northwood, extra counselors were brought in to help students and teachers cope. The school day began with an announcement during first period explaining that four students had been involved in a car crash and that officials "believed they lost Ashton," school spokesman Ian Hanigan said.
When the last period ended, about 40 students went straight to the accident site, where shards of glass from the crash could be seen and a makeshift memorial stood.
The pickup's driver, 26-year-old Austin Jeffrey Farley of Irvine, remained in custody Tuesday on suspicion of drunken driving. Farley, who along with a passenger emerged from the accident unhurt, was arrested at the scene and was being held in lieu of $1-million bail. His first court appearance could be as soon as Wednesday, an Orange County district attorney's spokesman said.
Court records show that Farley has a history of driving-related arrests and convictions. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and battery on a police officer or emergency worker, according to the Orange County courts online database. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended or revoked license and refusing to submit to a chemical test for driving under the influence.
As Ashton's mother and stepfather waited at their Irvine home for calls from a funeral home, a church and organ transplant experts, they spoke tenderly of their daughter: how she was an extremely social teenager who lovingly watched over her brother Tori, a 13-year-old struggling with autism.
Elizabeth Sweet recalled her last hours with Ashton.
Saturday, she said, was a special day because the family found time to leisurely hang out at home. She remembered Ashton making tea as two of her three brothers played video games.
"I remember looking up at my family, at Ashton, and just feeling that warm sense of love, feeling that this was a perfect day," Elizabeth Sweet said. "I was just so grateful that we had this moment."
With Ashton off to a birthday party Saturday night, her mother and stepfather said they had no reason to worry. After all, Ashton was a well-liked, responsible freshman. But about 2 a.m., they awoke to loud knocks on their front door. Irvine police officers had come to say that Ashton had been in an accident. Her parents needed to come to the hospital.
"The second they told me I knew, as a mother does - 'oh, no' - that this was something terrible," Elizabeth Sweet said. "I knew I might never see my daughter alive again."