Mother, 4 children killed in fiery crash south of Riverdale

The Fresno BeeFebruary 16, 2014 

— A Riverdale man watched helplessly as his wife and four young children perished Saturday night after he tried desperately to rescue them from a fiery two-car crash south of town, the California Highway Patrol said.

Coroner's investigators haven't confirmed the identities of the five victims. But a clerk at a Riverdale market identified the mother as Esmeralda Tafoya. A makeshift memorial apparently set up Sunday at the crash scene included flowers and a poster with photos of the mother and her children: Breanna, Jada, Nikko and Issac. The white poster read "We will miss you!" and "Gone but never ever forgotten."

The collision happened just after 7 p.m. Saturday as the 29-year-old mother was southbound on Marks Avenue crossing Excelsior Avenue in a 2003 Ford Expedition SUV.

The CHP said Juana Martinez Bejarano, 41, of Riverdale was westbound on Excelsior and driving about 60 mph in a 2004 Nissan Quest minivan when she did not stop for the stop sign at Marks.

The front of the Nissan slammed into the side of the Ford and both cars came to rest on the southwest corner of the intersection. The Ford burst into flames and the driver and four children -- ages 1, 3, 6 and 11 years -- perished at the scene.

The CHP said the father of the family, who was not identified, was following the Ford and saw the crash and the SUV catch fire. He tried to smash windows and pull his family from the burning Ford, and received minor burns to his hands, said CHP spokesman Axel Reyes.

Neighbors said the crash seemed more like an explosion, something out of a horror film. Lori and Robert Pierce, who have lived by the intersection for 15 years, said their trailer trembled at the moment of the crash.

"My husband ran out, he saw a car engulfed in flames and a man running around the car wanting to get his family out," Lori Pierce said. "He was in such shock we just had to pull him away," she said.

Lori Pierce described the scene as heartbreaking.

"He lost his whole family in five seconds because somebody couldn't stop."

Robert Pierce said the car was engulfed in flames up to 15 feet tall.

"Nobody was moving, nobody was screaming, nobody was crying," he said.

The couple said there have been seven preventable fatalities since they have lived at that intersection.

"The best thing they could do for this intersection is put the reflection bumps on the road," Robert Pierce said. "Even if it saves one life, it's worth it."

"We're losing too many innocent people," Lori Pierce added. "We need changes."

The driver of the other car, Martinez Bejarano, was taken to Community Regional Medical Center with major injuries. She was listed in fair condition Sunday night.

A witness said the minivan was traveling about 60 mph or near the 55 mph limit of county roads in the area, Reyes said.

"You almost could not have timed it any better, the two front corners" of the two vehicles struck at the worst angle -- right near the engine blocks -- likely leading to the fire, Reyes told The Associated Press.

Although investigators don't believe alcohol or drugs were factors in the crash, they are looking at whether Bejarano was on medication at the time of the accident, Reyes said. Her medical history indicates that may be a possibility, he said.

Fresno County Coroner Dr. David Hadden said autopsies were performed Sunday but the results won't be available until Monday at the earliest. He did not yet know whether the occupants died of injuries from the impact or from the fire.

Hadden said he understood the family was on its way to pick up another child when the crash happened, but he did not know whether that child was one of theirs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporters can be reached at daguilera@fresnobee.com, gjuy@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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