A Fresno man testified Monday that he felt helpless seeing two young women standing outside an overturned SUV right before a Greyhound bus rammed it on Highway 99 in Fresno.
“Please help us! Please help us!” the women screamed.
But Alan Helmuth, 62, told a Fresno County Superior Court jury that he couldn’t rescue them because cars were whizzing around the overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
“I will never forget the ladies standing out there,” he testified. “They looked really scared.”
The two women were among six people killed in the crash shortly after 2 a.m. on July 22, 2010. Three had been traveling in the SUV together: Sylvia Garay, 18; Vanessa Gonzalez, 19; Stephanie Cordoba, 20. Three were on the Greyhound including bus driver James Jewett and two passengers.
The families of Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba have sued Greyhound for negligence, claiming Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his glasses. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.
In the second week of the trial, Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler and Jason Helsel, who represent the families, are calling witnesses to advance their claim that the California Highway Patrol did a shoddy investigation by exonerating Greyhound of any wrongdoing.
A key issue in the wrongful-death trial is who was driving the SUV.
After a yearlong investigation, the CHP blamed the crash on Garay, saying she was drunk (.11 blood-alcohol level) when she lost control of her SUV and overturned it. (The legal limit is .08.) Last week, however, two of the women’s friends — Daniela Flores and Elizabeth Christensen — testified that Gonzalez was driving. Court records say Gonzalez had no alcohol or drugs in her body.
CHP officials contend the crash was unavoidable because the dark undercarriage of the dark blue SUV was facing oncoming traffic.
To refute the CHP version of the crash, Chandler and Helsel asked Helmuth and Lana Post to testify Monday. Helmuth and Post were both traveling Highway 99 around the time of the crash.
Helmuth said he saw the SUV overturn on Highway 99 and was stopped on the shoulder of the highway when the bus rammed it. Post told jurors that she saw a wrong-way driver on 99. Chandler and Helsel contend the wrong-way driver caused Gonzalez to flip the SUV.
Both sides agree that the TrailBlazer was traveling north in the far right, or slow lane. CHP investigators say skid marks indicated that the SUV swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley offramp and veered into the center median. The vehicle rolled, and then came to rest on its side in the left lane, or fast lane.
After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus careened down the highway more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree, killing Jewett and passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton.
Helmuth, an IRS custodian, testified Monday that he had just gotten off work and was heading home on northbound Highway 99 when he saw the SUV pass him from the left side. The SUV headed for the McKinley Avenue exit, he said, then suddenly swerved left and overturned.
Helmuth testified that he quickly pulled over on the shoulder of the McKinley exit and turned on his emergency flashers. He wanted to help but soon realized he couldn’t.
“Cars were coming so fast,” he said. “I thought I would be hit.”
He said he could see two women “moving around inside the SUV.” One got out, and then another, he said.
Other motorists stopped to help, he said, but fast-moving cars prevented anyone from rescuing them.
He said 2 to 3 minutes passed before the Greyhound bus rammed the SUV. He testified he never heard the bus driver hit his brakes before impact.
On cross-examination, Greyhound attorney Esther Pardo Holm asked Helmuth why he didn’t tell the CHP about seeing two women outside the SUV. “I’m pretty sure I did,” Helmuth replied.
But when Holm showed Helmuth his statement to the CHP, it didn’t mention the women standing outside the SUV.
“I know what I saw,” Helmuth told the jury.
Asked if he saw a wrong-way driver, Helmuth said no.
Post, however, testified that she was sure she saw a wrong-way driver.
She testified that she was riding in a southbound big rig driven by her husband. Around the McKinley exit, she recalled “seeing a cloud of dust on the northbound side.”
She testified she then saw a pair of headlights on a white SUV that was headed the wrong way on the northbound McKinley exit.
She said she told her husband, “There’s going to be a wreck.”
Post testified that she didn’t see the victims’ SUV overturn, but she remembered seeing a Greyhound bus heading north.
Because she and her husband were headed south, Post said she didn’t know about the horrific crash. But she testified that she called 911 the next day to report the wrong-way driver.
A few weeks later, CHP investigators interviewed Post. She testified she gave investigators her account of the wrong-way driver. “But I never heard from the CHP again,” she said told the jury.
Monday afternoon, Chandler and Helsel played the videotaped deposition from veterinarian Dr. Avtar Jandi, a passenger in the Greyhound bus, who told the CHP that Jewett was speeding, changing lanes and passing cars. At one point, Jandi said in his deposition that he stood up and saw the speedometer that showed Jewett was driving 75-80 mph when the posted speed limit is 65 mph.
Jewett, a 32-year veteran of Greyhound, was making a run from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he arrived in Fresno at 1:45 a.m. About the same time, Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez were wrapping up a night celebrating a friend’s birthday.
With the help of a friend, they had first gone to a liquor store in Fresno to purchase vodka and Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage. They then went to a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District.
Chandler and Helsel contend that Gonzalez, who lived in Fresno, was the designated driver that night because Garay was from Dinuba and didn’t know Fresno streets. Gonzalez also didn’t drink because she was Mormon, the lawyers said. They contend that Jewett could have avoided the crash since many motorists drove around the overturned SUV while others stopped to help the three women and left their lights and emergency flashers on.
Los Angeles attorneys Dana Alden Fox and Holm, who represent Greyhound, blame an intoxicated Garay for causing the fatal crash. Greyhound also has sued Garay’s mother, Olga Garay, for loaning her daughter the SUV.
The trial will resume Tuesday.