Jan Fagerstedt, left, grieving with husband Wallace, speaks fondly of… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
MOUNTAIN HOME VILLAGE — Smoke from the warm fire inside Fred Richardson's home hung in the mountain air outside his house Wednesday, masking the heartbreak inside and throughout the tiny creekside town where he lived for seven decades.
His son, Steve, grieved silently on the front porch. Along with the wind sifting through the pines and sycamores, the only other sound came from traffic winding down the mountain highway just a few blocks away — the same highway that took his father's life.
Richardson, 72, was driving to his home in the San Bernardino Mountains on Sunday evening, after wrapping up a landscaping job in Yucaipa, when an out-of-control tour bus traveling down California 38 from Big Bear smashed into his Ford pickup truck.
Richardson clung to life until Wednesday morning, when he died of massive head and chest trauma. He was the eighth fatality resulting from the horrific crash, which killed seven bus passengers.
"We're all still struggling," his son said before turning to go inside with the rest of the family.
Down the street, Richardson's older sister, Jan Fagerstedt, shared her fondest memories. Since he was a toddler, her little brother loved to fish for rainbow trout in the nearby creeks. He was a church deacon. He delivered firewood to homebound neighbors, and once helped save the town from a raging flood.
"He was the most warm-hearted man you'd ever met," she said, pausing to gather strength. "He lived a life. He lived a good moral life.... I miss my brother so."
The night of the deadly crash, Fagerstedt was outside gathering kindling when she heard commotion on the highway less than 100 feet from her home.
"I heard this terrible loud honking. I jumped. And I went in and told my husband, 'You know, I think we have a runaway truck,' " she recalled. "But it had to be that bus. A little while later that accident happened. So that bus went by here, and I heard it. And I thought, 'I hope nobody's in the way.' "
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and California Highway Patrol on Wednesday began a "full mechanical breakdown" of the tour bus and other vehicles involved in Sunday's crash. Investigators continue to pore over maintenance records and interview employees of the bus company, Scapadas Magicas in National City, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
The investigation will focus heavily on the brakes and other mechanical equipment of a bus that has a history of safety violations, including faulty brakes.
CHP spokesman Mario Lopez said the bus driver, Norberto Perez, has been released from the hospital. The 52-year-old San Ysidro man has not been charged in connection with the accident, Lopez said.
The tour bus left Tijuana early Sunday with 38 passengers, including children, and was returning from the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake when the driver lost control on the sweeping, downhill bends of the mountain road. The bus clipped a sedan and then flipped, ejecting passengers, before hitting Richardson's pickup truck.
News of Richardson's death Wednesday overwhelmed his hometown. Fewer than 100 families live amid the narrow snaking roads of Mountain Home Village, a town hidden in the folds of the San Bernardino Mountains. Some homes, Richardson's among them, were hand-crafted with stones hauled up from nearby Mountain Home Creek.
California 38 used to wind right through town. And it has brought heartache to the Richardson family before.
In the 1960s, Fred Richardson's 4-year-old niece was struck and killed by a passing car after she stepped out of the town market. Another niece, Beaumont City Councilwoman Brenda Knight, was with her cousin when it happened.
"It just doesn't seem fair that a family should suffer so," she said.
Times staff writer Ari Bloomekatz contributed to this report.