A single vehicle traffic accident early Easter Sunday morning on Highway 128 in Philo claimed the lives of four young men in the prime of their life. At about 4:00 AM a red Mitsubishi sedan traveling West toward the Coast at a high rate of speed went out of control, left the road and hit an oak tree just past the Philo Post Office killing the driver and all three of his companions. Guests from an inn across the highway and two other nearby residents rushed to the scene, getting there within minutes, but there was nothing that could be done. Gasoline was pouring from the bright red car’s tank into a flowing ditch across which the vehicle was laying. One of the victims, the front seat passenger, was laying outside, beside and partially under the vehicle. All the others were tangled within the twisted vehicle.
Terry Rickman of Philo was walking along the South side of the road and witnessed the accident. She immediately banged on the door of the house directly across the street from the post office, the home of Effren Mendoza who was already awakened by the crash and getting dressed. Effren ran out to assess the situation then called 911. “Send an ambulance quickly,” he remembers anxiously telling the operator.
Richard Bare one of the first at scene said he had told his wife upon hearing the crash that “someone has just died out there.” Richard had his flashlight and was looking for someone he could help but he could find none with pulses.
The CHP report estimates the speed of the vehicle to be 70 to 75 mph and says the driver was unable to negotiate the gentle left turn that starts in front of Libby’s restaurant.
The unibody framework of the Mitsubishi was almost totally severed on the underside from the impact and it had somehow spun around so that it was on its side on the opposite side of the three-foot in diameter tree. The degree of destruction was massive. It is not known whether all of the victims were wearing their seat belts, though in this case the impact was so severe it did not matter.
Alcohol was not mentioned in the CHP report and local rumors support the idea that the driver was not much of a drinker and a person who could “have a good time at a party without drinking.” The young men had earlier been to a musical gathering at the fairgrounds in Ukiah but it is not known how they spent the time from the midnight closing of that event until the accident. All four of the victims were residents of Philo and all four were employees of Roederer Estates Vineyards.
The driver, Jose Luis Lua Montano, 23, lived with his father Juan Lua in Roederer housing as did his cousin Gerardo Lua, 19, and Ignacio Galvan Gutierrez, 21, who also died in the crash. The fourth victim, Armondo Guadelupe Castro Gomez, 22, lived with his brother on Ray’s Road. Ignacio Galvan’s father said that Ignacio worked at Roederer Estates as well. All four victims were from the Mexican State of Michoacan. Roederer spokesperson Art Hatcher said it was a big loss for the company known as La Compania to Valley farmworkers. “They were conscientious, hard workers. The kind of employees all employers would like to have.” All Roederer field workers were given the day off Monday to deal with their feelings. Grief counseling was to be made available as soon as it could be arraigned.
The terribly tragic experience for family and friends was made more so by the fact that the car along with its dead and officially unidentified occupants were left beside the road for hours. Traffic accidents with four or more deaths are frequently turned over for investigation to a Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team. That was done in this case, but the Northern Division MAIT comes out of Redding and did not arrive on scene until around noon, eight hours after the accident occurred. MAIT then took another two and a half hours or more before they would allow local volunteer first responder crews to extricate the bodies and allow coroners to access the victims for identification. By this time it was pouring rain and at one time at least a hundred people were standing around wondering and speculating on who had died. Law enforcement didn’t know who the dead men were but in time the Mexican community to a large degree had figured it out and family members were grieving or in some cases in stunned apprehension hoping their loved ones might not be in the vehicle.
Several First Responders from the Anderson Valley Volunteer Fire Department showed up but aside from preliminary traffic control until Caltrans took over there was little they could do until cleared by MAIT at around 3:00 PM to do the extrication. As the first on scene, Joe Gowan, of Philo, was IC or incident commander and stayed on scene for the entire 12 hours directing operations. The other volunteers were allowed to leave with the extrication team standing by off scene for recall.
During extrication, after two of the bodies were removed at the crash site, the rear half of the vehicle was cut loose and transported to the post office parking lot to facilitate extrication of the remaining two. Because of the language barrier AV Fire personnel and law enforcement were grateful for the bilingual citizens who stepped forward to help with translation.
A collection is being taken to help with the costs of transporting the bodies of these young men back to their home in Mexico for burial. The families are hoping they can get enough money together before this weekend. An account at a bank is being opened but in the meantime there is a can at Lemon’s Market in Philo or contributions can be sent to Accident Fund P.O. Box 95 Philo, 95466 or Accident Victim’s Fund c/o Roederer Estates P.O. Box 67, Philo 95466. On Monday a collection was taken up at Roederer from the warehouse workers and one worker said he was moved by the generosity of the relatively low paid workers, some of them handing over $100 bills and others half their paychecks.