The early morning of Tuesday, Aug. 5, was clear and cool, even pleasant. Steve Carney, 34, had stopped at a friend's house to unwind after a double shift as a server at a local restaurant. On his way home, he pulled off the road at Overton Road and Sunridge Drive to watch a meteor shower. Then he heard it.
"A screech and two booms and a thud. I was dumbfounded. I thought, 'Did I hear what I just heard?'"
He started up his engine and crept down the big hill, west on Overton Road towards the intersection at Rancho Feliz Drive.
"It was pitch black," he said. "I had my high beams on and I saw something in the middle of the road. It was the car battery sitting in the middle of Overton. I had my window down and heard moans and groans of people hurt. I thought of Cambodia, of television images of war."
He could see someone sprawled across the road, struggling to breathe, convulsing as if having a seizure.
To his left, south of the T-intersection, an overturned van lay in the desert, parallel with Overton Road, its nose pointed east. There was a body next to it.
As he approached, two girls limped out of the desert toward him. "The dark haired girl kept asking 'What happened?' I think she was in shock," he said. The blonde girl had trouble walking, so she sat down in the dirt, "curled up, rocking and crying and asking where her friend Emily was."
He pulled his car diagonally into the intersection, flipped on his hazard lights and dialed 911. It was 4:03 a.m.
After a few confused seconds talking to the 911 operator and trying to figure out how many people were involved, Carney realized there was also a body under the van and one 20 feet away next to a stop sign.
"We couldn't see their faces," he said. "They just lay there, the three of them forming a diagonal line. There was no blood anywhere." Police later found another injured male in the desert behind the car.
As Carney called 911, another neighbor who had heard the crash arrived at the crash site on foot. She comforted the girls while he talked with emergency personnel. He thought she gave them a telephone to call their families. He never learned her name.
"She told me that she'd heard this kind of thing many times before, that there were many accidents around this bend," he said. According to Rural/Metro Fire Department statistics, there have been seven accidents at that corner since July 15, 2002.
Working the graveyard shift, Officer Kevin Mattocks, of the Oro Valley Police Department DUI squad, was the first to respond to the 911 call. He arrived the same way as Carney, down Overton Road to its intersection with Rancho Feliz Drive.
"It was a very bad scene. You don't expect that many people - an entire car full of kids - especially at 4 o'clock in the morning," he said. "There was debris all over - tennis shoes, clothes, tools - I assumed (the van) had been flipping."
He found Carney squatting on the south shoulder, talking to two girls. The dark-haired girl was Chelsea Boswell, the blonde was Melissa Roland, both 16-year-old cheerleaders at Canyon Del Oro High School.
"As I was looking around, I noticed there was a lot more going on," said Mattocks. "I could see a body at the stop sign. I knew we had more bodies. I was still fearful there could be more people in the desert," he said. "I was looking for people who could be helped first."
He went back over to the girls, and noticed that Chelsea had a swelling on her forehead the size of a grapefruit. "She was dazed and wasn't talking."
Melissa gripped his hand. "I asked her how many people were in the van. She said 'Seven,'" but she only knew a couple of them. She gave Mattocks the name of a friend who knew them all, Krista Cooper.
Over the phone, Krista gave Mattocks the names and descriptions of the seven young people who'd been in the van. They were Chelsea and Melissa and their friend, 16-year-old Emily Bowman, another CDO cheerleader; 17-year-old Chris Dormady and the 16-year-old driver, Ernesto "Neto" Ybarra Jr., both students at Ironwood Ridge High School; and two friends who had graduated from Amphi High School several years before, David Herrera, 21, a University of Arizona student, and Aaron Mohr, 20, who had planned to attend Pima Community College in the fall.
Once police determined that the accident occurred in Pima County, the Pima County Sheriff's Department took over. Piecing together the puzzle of that night, sheriff's deputies learned that Krista was supposed to be in the van, but changed her mind about going along with the group. Instead, she spent that night with a girlfriend, Veronica.
Brad McCord, 20, a friend of the older youths, Aaron and David, told the Northwest EXPLORER that Veronica was David's girlfriend. McCord thought the party had started at David's apartment earlier that night, about 9 p.m. "They were hanging out," he said. "David's girlfriend, Veronica, is younger, and she has younger friends. I was going to call Aaron that night, but I'm in summer school and had too much homework."
According to sheriff's office reports, Melissa's mother arrived at the crash scene soon after the 911 call, and told police that her daughter said she'd done a shot of alcohol and more than likely the others had as well. Later, at the hospital, Chelsea and Melissa both told police they had been drinking alcohol at the golf course earlier in the evening.
The report stated that Melissa told deputies that the group had been drinking and had gone "icing" or "blocking" - riding a towel-covered block of ice down a hill - at a golf course at La Cholla Boulevard and Naranja Drive, the El Conquistador Country Club. She said the group had been on its way back to Veronica's house when the driver lost control of the vehicle and rolled. The report stated that a large block of ice lay outside the driver's side of the van, furthest from the roadway.
Pete Campbell, security supervisor of Omni Tucson National Golf Course, informed the sheriff's department that one of his security personnel had been in contact with a "van load of drunk teens" at about 3:30 a.m. However, the van left the property soon afterward.
Rod Siler, general manager at Omni Tucson National, remembered Aaron, who had worked at the golf course for several years. "He always did a great job for us. It's really sad," he said. He could only speculate that the young people were cruising around town. "Since Aaron used to work here, maybe they said, 'Let's go cruise Tucson National'."
At the accident site, the sheriff's department examined the crash scene and determined that the 1996 Ford minivan had been traveling south on Rancho Feliz Drive and appeared to have rolled southbound down Rancho Feliz, coming to rest on the south shoulder of Overton Road.
According to sheriff's department reports, tire marks on the roadway extended into the east shoulder, returned to the roadway, and then crossed onto the west shoulder, indicating the driver had drifted off the road, overcorrected, lost control and rolled. Police noted scratching, scraping and gouge marks consistent with a vehicle overturning and sliding on its roof. Speed scuff measurements indicated a speed of 56 to 60 miles per hour in a zone posted 25 mph.
Emily, Neto and Aaron were pronounced dead at the scene.
Frontier Towing had to lift the rear portion of the van for rescue workers to remove one of the dead. The sheriff's department report noted a strong odor of intoxicants about the victims as they were placed in body bags. The three were transported to the county medical examiner.
It will take two to four weeks to determine if alcohol or drugs were in their systems, said Eric Peters, deputy chief medical examiner for the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.
A few hours after the crash, Neto's parents, Donna and Ernesto Ybarra Sr. arrived at Overton Road and La Canada Drive, near the scene, where a sheriff's deputy told them of their son's death.
Most of the other parents - including Emily's and Aaron's - went to the hospital to await news of their children.
The injured, Chelsea, Melissa and Chris - who was in critical condition - were transported by ambulance to University Medical Center, the only trauma center in Southern Arizona. David, who was taken by helicopter to UMC with massive head trauma, was not expected to survive at the time.
"When I got to the hospital, David's family had been told that David was in very critical condition, very much touch-and-go for the next 48 to 72 hours," said Keith Powell, pastor of the Mountain View Baptist Church, where David attended. "I was shocked by the bruising in his face - he was in extreme distress - it was a very serious situation and in all likelihood, fatal." At press time on Monday, he remained in critical condition.
At the hospital, Chelsea's mother and the medical staff informed Emily's mother of her daughter's death, according to the sheriff's report. Hospital staff identified Chris by a scar on his foot and leg and a birthmark. Mohr's father had described his son as having tattoos of a motorcycle across his back and his arm. Neither David nor Chris had such tattoos, prompting one of the sheriff's deputies to call the crash scene to see if the description matched any of the dead. It did. That's how the Mohr family found out their son had died.
Melissa was eventually treated and released. Chelsea, in stable condition after the accident, was discharged Friday. By Monday, Chris's condition had been upgraded to fair.
911 CALL EXCERPT
Ed. Note: The Northwest EXPLORER has been trying to find out the details of what happened the night of Aug. 4-5 and how the seven teens and young adults came to be in the van that rolled over. We've also been attempting to reconstruct the accident scene to better understand the horror and devastation experienced by those in the accident and those who came upon it that morning.
Steve Carney was the first person to reach the accident the morning of Aug. 5 and he called 911 to report the accident. The following are excerpts of his 911 call. We have edited out some of the more disturbing parts of the conversation, however some of what remains may still be disturbing or offensive to some readers.
Dispatcher: "911. What are you reporting?"
Steven Carney: "I am at Rancho Feliz and Overton. There's a car that is totaled. There's a lady here asking for help. There's a gentleman on the pavement right now. A battery's in the middle of the pavement. The vehicle is overturned, looks like an SUV."
Dispatcher: "You said the man is laying in the pavement?"
Carney: "He's in the pavement in the middle of the road. I just arrived. There's a girl here too."
Dispatcher: "Okay, I'm going to give you to the medical dispatcher. Stay on the line."
(Crying, whimpering in the background.)
Carney: "I'm at Rancho Feliz and Overton."
Carney (talking to someone at the scene): "Three people?"
("No, there's like six of us." )
Carney: "There are a lot of problems here."
Second Dispatcher: "OK, what's going on?"
Carney: "Overturned vehicle, gentleman in the middle of the road, six people. Send help. Send help."
Dispatcher: "OK, we're on our way, sir. But I need you to stay on the line with me, OK?"
Carney: "I was just driving by and saw this."
Dispatcher: "It's a car accident?"
Carney: "Yes, it's a rollover, it looks like. I was at the top of the street and I heard it and I was wondering what happened."
Dispatcher: "We're on our way. Can you see if anyone is hurt right now?"
Carney: "Yeah, there are a lot of people hurt. Yeah, there are three people not even moving. Can you hear this?"
(Crying, sobbing in background.)
Dispatcher: "Yes sir, I can hear it. You said there are three people who aren't moving at all, sir?"
Carney: "I know of three people right in front of me. One of them is not moving. They say that there are three other people. One person I can't even talk to, she's out. Two girls are right here. Three other people I'm unaware of …"
Carney: "… unaccounted for. Vehicle is rolled over. Here's somebody else walking up. They heard it. Hello."
Dispatcher: "I'm still here."
Carney: "No, I'm talking to this person walking up. There's help on the way. You heard it? Yeah, I heard it."
("Is (unintelligible) OK?")
Carney: "No, nothing's OK. There are three other people… somewhere."
(Whimpering in the background.)
Dispatcher: "You said one of the vehicles is on its side?"
Carney: "I'm approaching the vehicle. I probably shouldn't approach … this thing could blow … could it not? I mean the battery is right here in the middle of the road."
Dispatcher: "Do you see any movement in there? Inside the vehicle?"
Carney: "Yeah, I'm on right now, I'm on the phone with emergency right now."
("She's (unintelligible) in there.")
Carney: "There's somebody else in the vehicle. The front of the vehicle is …"
("Where's Emily?" Whimpering, crying.)
Dispatcher: "And how many vehicles… ?"
Carney: "There's somebody under the car too."
Dispatcher: "OK, and there are how many vehicles?"
Carney: "One vehicle."
Dispatcher: "And how many people?"
Carney: "Six reported. Four accounted for. (Whimpering, crying.) This guy's going into seizure I think, or something, he's starting to breathe more heavily."
Dispatcher: "OK, your best bet is to have everything away from him, anything that he can hurt himself with."
Carney: "Yeah, he hasn't moved per se, but he is…"
Dispatcher: "OK, the gentleman who is seizing, is everything away from him?"
Carney: "What? The one underneath the car looks real bad. …
("How many people were there all together?")
Dispatcher: "Sir, if you can, if anyone there has some clean cloths or some rags or anything…"
Carney: "No, there's nothing. Here come the police right now."
End of Call
REMEMBERING THE VICTIMS
By Aubin Tyler
Friends and family gathered last week to remember the lives of Aaron Mohr, 20, Emily Bowman, 16 and Ernesto "Neto Ybarra Jr., 16, killed in a rollover accident in the early morning hours of Aug. 5.
On Friday morning after the crash, pictures of red-headed Aaron - from infancy to adulthood - covered the family's large oval dining table. His parents Paul and Judy Mohr, his 19-year-old sister Robin, Judy's sister Susan and Paul's brother John were all there.
"He had finally decided he wanted to be a business major, he enjoyed the hotel business and had great management skills," said his mother Judy.
Aaron hunted, backpacked, fished and played tennis and golf. He had wanted to be a professional golfer, but he'd hurt his back in a snowboarding accident and it affected his game. "He never complained," said Paul. "He was a glass half-full guy."
He also raced motorcycles on a racetrack near Deming, N.M., because he thought it was safer on a track than on the street. "'Knee-draggers' they call them. They throw the bikes over almost hitting the pavement, sometimes racing up to 150 miles per hour," said his dad. "The dark irony in all of this is that he ended up dying in a pointless accident."
The weekend before he died, Aaron and his mother took a trip to Pinetop. "He wished he'd been able to go to Iraq," she said. Her son had joined the Army briefly after high school but was deferred out after a bout with pneumonia.
His older brother Jeff, 32, remembered him as "a great kid - intelligent, loving." The two played golf and went snowboarding together. "When he was a baby, I used to run home from lunch to see him."
"One of his other hobbies was fly-fishing," said his father, who used to fish with his son in the White Mountains. "He was so good at casting, people would stop to watch him cast."
Seven months before his death, Aaron had moved out to his own apartment on Orange Grove Road, a few miles away from his close-knit family.
"My children live life, they're involved, that's what life is for them," said Judy.
"We want to know what happened that night," said Paul. "He didn't know most of those kids. What was he doing hanging out with a bunch of teen-agers? I still can't believe it."
At a memorial service for Emily Bowman Saturday, about 1,000 people jammed a flower-filled gymnasium at Canyon Del Oro High School looking for closure over the death of the popular teen-ager. Two squads of blond, black-clad cheerleaders read poems and letters, often halting to hold back tears. A visibly bruised, wheelchair-bound Chelsea Boswell, injured in the accident, also paid public tribute to her friend.
"Emily was the kind of girl people wanted to be around," said another teammate, who laughed over her sense of fun and how she always got sick on the bus to the nationals.
Emily's mother spoke briefly, forgiving her daughter for the "few little white lies" she told on the night of the crash. She too, spoke of how her daughter "lived life to the fullest." She em-braced Ernesto Ybarra's mother, Donna, who also said a few words, pleading with the young people to always think about their decisions and the consequences of those decisions.
"Emily was the funniest person on the entire team," said Stephanie Langlitz, 15, earlier last week. The two had cheered together as part of Oro Valley Pride last fall. "She was the best flyer - the girl that goes on top of the pyramid - on the team."
At the Ybarra home Friday, the huge mesquite trees seemed to weep over the silent horse corrals and the baked, cracking mud. A family friend quietly said she was cleaning up for the couple, who left in a hurry to escape news reporters.
Langlitz, a sophomore at Ironwood Ridge High School, knew Neto, too. "He was the most polite kid," she said. At games where she was the water girl, "he was the only one who said please and thank you."
Mark Lindrud, a former coach at IRHS, said, "Neto was one of the finest kids you could ever meet. He gave everything he had. He was a running back - he was a small kid but he played like the biggest kid out there. He wanted to graduate, to make his parents proud. They were his biggest fans - they wanted him to do well - he had great support."
At the crash site the day after the accident, a shocked Rebekah Perez, 17, a senior at IRHS, said she knew Neto from choir. "He liked to sing, he was a good singer. He always wanted to make people laugh. He was really a good kid. I never saw him in a bad mood. He was really fun to be around. This doesn't seem like him, he wasn't a drinker."
Matt Cornett, a counselor for the Amphitheater Public Schools District, said that these kind of incidents are all too common among young people today.
"It almost always happens at the beginning of school - the last hurrah - or at the end of school when they're celebrating getting out," he said. "They don't have a sense of mortality. They don't know they can die.
"Drugs and alcohol are one contributing factor, but social pressures are greater - to look cool, to be an adult. Kids don't know that there are responsibilities that come with driving, with having a relationship.
"They have no rights of passage that are healthy," he said. "What makes a young man? Fighting, drinking and having a girlfriend. These are powerful things. But kids don't yet have much of a grasp on the negative aspects. We don't see much meaningful portrayal of what it means to be an adult, except more money, a better car - superficial things."
Other victims' family members, besieged by media since the accident, declined to be interviewed or could not be reached.
At a candlelight vigil Friday, about 200 family and friends gathered silently around the crash site memorial in a brief, light rain, and paid their respects to the dead.
What was once a scene of devastation was now a site of remembrance - an impromptu memorial of flowers, balloons, notes, photos and mementos offered in memory of lives cut short.
Those who spoke, whispered. Those who cried, gave up silent tears and were quickly comforted by those around them.
After the rain moved on, candles were lit, washing the memorial site in a soft, yellow glow. Now and then, someone moved out of the throng of mourners to place a candle, photo or flowers among the others; some said a quiet prayer before moving away.
"The Lord is My Shepherd"
The Mountain View Baptist Church has placed a sign at the crash site with Psalm 23 and the names of the three dead youths. The church also has organized a memorial fund for the families to help with medical and funeral bills. Checks should be made out to MVBC, with the designee indicated on the memo portion of the check. Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo Bank.
"These kids contributed richly to the Northwest community," said Pastor Keith Powell, of Mountain View Baptist, where David Herrera, critically injured in the accident, is a member. "The kids are looking for meaning in all of this. It may take a long time to find that kind of purpose."