Greyhound trial: Drivers stopped on Highway 99, but didn’t aid SUV occupants

In the most gut-wrenching testimony so far in the Greyhound wrongful death civil trial, two Fresno motorists testified Wednesday that drivers had stopped on Highway 99, forming a barrier at an overturned SUV, but they left the crash scene without rendering aid to the three young women trapped inside.

Soon after the drivers left, a streaking Greyhound bus crashed into the overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer, killing the three occupants: Sylvia Garay, 18, of Dinuba; and Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, 20, both of Fresno. Bus driver James Jewett and two passengers also were killed in the predawn crash on July 22, 2010.

The never-before-released details left the relatives of Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba in tears. They have sat through four weeks of testimony and now wanted to know why the drivers left without helping the women.

One of the witnesses, Jesus Venegas, declined to comment outside the courtroom. The other witness, Robert Gomez, said he and the other drivers did all they could.

“There were other people who had stopped to help,” Gomez said. “After my friend called 911, we decided to leave because there was nothing we could do.”

The explanation did not sit well with Cordoba’s mother, Ayda Cordoba. “They are selfish. They are cowards,” she said.

The families of the three women have sued Greyhound for negligence, contending Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.

Their lawyers face an uphill battle because the CHP has blamed the deadly crash on Garay, saying she was drunk when she overturned the SUV near the McKinley Avenue offramp. The CHP also contends Jewett was wearing his glasses and did nothing wrong because he couldn’t see the dark undercarriage of the SUV before slamming into it.

Greyhound’s lawyers called Gomez and Venegas to defuse claims that Jewett caused the horrific crash. They also called Fresno County pathologist Dr. Venu Gopal to the witness stand. Gopal testified that band-like bruises on Cordoba and Gonzalez that go right to left, from the shoulder to under the neck, were consistent with them being passengers in the SUV. But others have testified that Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her body, was driving that night.

Both sides agree that 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.

The three young women headed home around 2 a.m., traveling north on Highway 99 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 off-ramp and veered into the center median. The SUV rolled and then came to rest on its side in the left lane, or fast lane.

Gomez testified he and Venegas and three other friends had just finished a disc jockey gig at a Tower District nightclub. He said the group left the nightclub in three vehicles.

Driving a Saturn, Gomez said he and his passenger drove ahead of the others. He was in the slow lane when he saw the SUV make two “indecisive moves.” The TrailBlazer turned right, as if to exit at McKinley, then turned a left back on the freeway, Gomez told the jury. Moments later, the SUV made a sharp right, then a sharp left, and drove head-on into the cement center divider and overturned, he said.

Gomez testified the highway was dark and the undercarriage of the SUV was “pitch black.” He said he slowed and turned his car lights off and on to warn other motorists following him. He then pulled over on the right shoulder of 99 about a car length in front of the overturned SUV and turned on his emergency flashers.

His first inclination was to call his friends in the two other vehicles, Gomez told the jury. But by then his friends had shown up at the crash scene.

Venegas, driving a pickup truck, testified that around the Olive Avenue overpass he saw a “big white dust cloud in the fast lane” near McKinley Avenue.

Venegas testified he was following a friend who was driving a Toyota. Both vehicles were in the middle lane of 99.

He said his friend suddenly hit the brakes, so Venegas shifted to the fast lane. He then stopped just two feet from the overturned SUV. He testified he turned on his emergency flashers.

Venegas told the jury he looked into his rear-view and side mirrors and saw oncoming traffic. Fearing he would be rear-ended, he said he pumped his brakes to warn motorists of trouble ahead. A commercial van stopped right behind Venegas, nearly hitting him, he told the jury.

The friend driving the Toyota Land Cruiser also stopped on 99 without hitting the overturned SUV. Venegas and Gomez both testified that a car had also stopped behind the Toyota. All the stopped vehicles had their lights on.

While stopped, Venegas said, he saw at least one car drive around the crash scene. But within a minute, and once the highway was clear, the stopped vehicles were put into reverse and they left, he said. “I think everyone panicked and got out of there quick,” Venegas told the jury.

Gomez testified that he had been sitting in his car on the shoulder of the highway for three to four minutes before he drove off. He told the jury that someone in the group had called 911.

Gomez and Venegas testified they never saw the bus hit the overturned SUV. They said it was much later that they learned the crash had killed six people.

After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus continued on 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.