Families talk of pain in aftermath of fatal Greyhound bus crash

The family photo of Vanessa Gonzalez snorkeling in Cancun, Mexico with her mother was too much for her mother to bear.

“We were great friends,” Emily Moreno tearfully told a Fresno County Superior Court jury. “I don’t think we had any secrets between us.”

Moreno wasn’t the only witness to shed tears Thursday in the wrongful death civil trial that pits three families against the Greyhound bus company.

Fresno police officer Jeremy Aguilar left the courtroom in tears after testifying about his girlfriend, Stephanie Cordoba. Aguilar testified that he and Cordoba had a daughter together and planned to marry.

And Victor Garay testified about how two police officers came to his home, woke him up and told him his daughter, Sylvia Garay, had been in an accident. Police told him to call the coroner.

On the final day of the trial’s third week, testimony shifted from who caused the deadly wreck between a Greyhound bus and an overturned SUV on Highway 99 in Fresno to the emotional toll left behind.

The predawn crash on July 22, 2010, killed six people, including Garay, 18, of Dinuba; and Gonzalez, 19, and Cordoba, 20, both of Fresno. They were occupants of the overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer. Greyhound driver James Jewett and two bus passengers also were killed.

The families of the three young women have sued Greyhound for negligence, claiming 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.

After three weeks of technical testimony regarding bus speed, brake friction, skids marks and seat-belt bruises on the victims, the trial shifted Thursday to the families talking about the pain of losing loved ones.

“When you lose a child, the pain never goes away,” Vanessa’s father, Jose Gonzalez, told the jury.

Thursday’s testimony had a common thread: Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba all had close relationships with their working-class parents and all three were pleasant, outgoing and hard workers.

The parents of Garay and Gonzalez testified that their daughters were licensed beauticians who had dreams of owning their own business. Cordoba’s mother, Ayda Cordoba, testified that her daughter had two jobs — one at Taco Bell, the other at a photography booth in the Fashion Fair Mall. She also testified that her daughter spent much of her time taking care of her grandmother and two younger sisters and pitching in to pay the household bills.

“She was hyper in a good way,” Ayda Cordoba told the jury. “She was always smiling and laughing.”

Vanessa also liked to have fun, her mother said, recalling how she and her daughter would play music in the kitchen and dance while preparing family meals.

Victor Cordoba testified that his daughter had dreamed of being a professional hair stylist since she was young. He told the jury that she often asked him to let her cut his hair and color it to get rid of the gray. “I let her do it,” he said.

Jeremy Aguilar testified he was working as a security guard at Fashion Fair Mall when he met Stephanie Cordoba. It was love at first sight and the pair dated two years before she got pregnant. When their daughter, Sienna, was born in April 2010, Aguilar testified that he moved into the Cordoba home. Once Cordoba died, Aguilar said he stayed in the Cordoba house for two years before moving out.

“Everybody loved her,” he said, holding back tears.

Emotions also ran high when family photos were shown during the testimony — a pregnant Stephanie Cordoba at a family gathering at Christmas in 2009 and Cordoba holding her baby at the hospital. There also was a photograph of 3-year-old Sienna at Disneyland without her mother.

The photographs of Garay showed her at church doing her first communion, in front of a big chocolate cake on her 14th birthday, and with her parents, Victor and Olga Garay, on vacation.

Photos of Gonzalez showed her with her family on vacation as well.

Remembering the good times caused the witnesses to wipe tears from their eyes. Recalling the fatal crash left them in emotional pain.

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 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.

The women then went to a friend’s home They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District. On their way home, the TrailBlazer swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median, hitting it with such force that it cracked the cement and caused the SUV’s airbags to deploy. The SUV rolled and came to rest on its side in the fast lane.

Once the SUV overturned, witnesses say two to three minutes passed before the bus hit it. 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.

Aguilar said he had gone to work that night. Stephanie Cordoba debated about going to the birthday party, her mother said.

Ayda Cordoba testified that her daughter deserved a night out with her friends, so she volunteered to take care of Sienna.

Throughout the night Stephanie Cordoba called her mother to check on Sienna, her mother testified. Her last call was around 2 a.m. “She said she was on her way home,” Ayda Cordoba told the jury.

But when she didn’t show up, Ayda Cordoba got worried. She got out of bed and looked around the house for her daughter. When she couldn’t find her, she said she called relatives and her daughter’s friends. She also called police.

Police initially told her nothing about her daughter, Ayda Cordoba testified. Police later called her and told her about a wreck on Highway 99. The wreck was close to her home, so she decided to drive to Highway 99. It was about 3:30 a.m. She told the jury that she saw the overturned SUV and the crushed bus, but she still didn’t know if her daughter was involved in the wreck, Ayda Cordoba testified.

Then later that morning, a relative called her and told her to go to the coroner’s office.

“Everything stopped not just for me, but for everyone who knew my daughter,” Ayda Cordoba said, wiping tears from her eyes.

Gonzalez’s mother, Emily Moreno, learned of the crash from Ayda Cordoba. She also went to the crash scene, said Moreno’s daughter, Elvia Cervantes. Hours passed before they learned that Gonzalez and her two friends had died, Cervantes said.

The California Highway Patrol 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 did nothing wrong because he couldn’t see the dark undercarriage of the SUV when he slammed into it.

Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler, Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler, however, have called several witnesses who say Gonzalez was driving when the SUV overturned. Gonzalez had no alcohol in her body, court records say.

In addition, Tom Shelton, a retired sergeant and formerly the CHP’s top expert on accident reconstruction, has testified that the crash could have been avoided and that it was wrong for the CHP to blame Garay because he said the evidence collected by investigators is insufficient to prove she was behind the wheel of the SUV.

The trial now takes a short break. Judge Donald Black has given the jury next week off so he can attend a seminar.

But before wrapping up Thursday, outside the presence of the jury, Black asked Greyhound’s lawyers to consider settling the case.

Once the trial resumes on March 16, the plaintiff’s lawyers plan to call an expert to advance their claim that Jewett wasn’t wearing his glasses — a requirement for him to drive a bus. Greyhound’s lawyers Dana Alden Fox, Esther Pardo Holm and Matthew Patrick Harrison of Los Angeles will then call witnesses from March 17 to March 19. Closing arguments are expected March 23.