A week before Easter there was a horrific car crash on a residential street in La Habra, California. The wreck was bad enough that it was in the news in Orange and LA Counties for a couple of days running.
Stories such as this one are the staples of local news coverage, and often lead the nightly broadcast. Yet, in most cases, they are mentioned in broad strokes by somber-faced TV reporters, then they pretty much vanish.
As it happens though, my brother Phil and his wife, who live in Orange County, were quite close to several of the people involved in the La Habra crash, and so felt impelled to write a humanizing story-behind-the story for some of the OC news outlets.
When the news is personal to you, you want to slow the vanishing.
You’ll find the story below.
PAUL ROMERO: DOING (ALMOST) EVERYTHING RIGHT
by Phil Fremon
“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant,” wrote Joan Didion in dealing with the loss of her husband.
When Paul Romero and his longtime girlfriend, Destiny Mendoza, plus Paul’s sister, Rochelle Romero, and Rochelle’s boyfriend, Jimmy Gonzales, left home Saturday night, April 16th, to celebrate Jimmy’s 21st birthday, they had no inkling that a catastrophic change was a few hours ahead of them. The foursome tried to do everything right. They agreed to make sure they had a safe ride home from Duffy’s, a local pub located on Imperial Highway, where they would be celebrating. Duffy’s is only 1.3 miles away from the La Habra apartment building where both couples lived. The plan was to text Paul and Rochelle’s younger sister Rosalyn for a ride home when everybody was ready to call it a night.
However, just before the foursome was about to send a text message for a ride home, David Huizar, Jr., and his wife, Delora Bravo, neighbors from their same apartment complex, arrived at Duffy’s on the way home from a party that they had attended elsewhere. Wishing to save their sister the trouble of leaving home to pick them up, the group caught a ride with David and Delora instead.
I met Paul Romero eighteen years ago when I came home from work one evening to find a seven-year-old Paul on the doorstep of my Fullerton home. His family had moved next door a few days earlier. With no preamble, the boy asked in a clear voice, wearing the enormous smile that I would come to know was nearly always on his face, “Do you have any jobs for me to do so that I can earn some money?” I dutifully found a large planter in the backyard that needed tending. The “tending” went on for several days until I came home to find my young peach tree chopped down to a stump, a victim of Paul’s enthusiasm to really clean the planter. I did not have the heart to tell the proud boy of my horror at finding my peach tree gone. I wish I could laugh with him now about that long ago day, but I will never get the chance.
Despite the loss of the fruit tree, the relationship continued. Paul was ten when, in January 1996, he and his six-year-old sister, Rochelle, and nine-year-old sister, Roxanne, as close to her brother as a twin, witnessed with fascination as I carried my new bride in full wedding regalia across the threshold of my 1950’s three-bedroom L-shaped house that faced theirs. As the years passed, one or more of the three Romeros would burst in our front door nearly every day to show us something they had made in school, request help with some homework assignment, make crafts or just come over to visit. My wife quickly became as attached to the kids as I was and often tutored Paul in whatever school subject was giving him trouble.
The six young men and women walked out of Duffy’s about half past midnight and piled into the late-model black double-cab Chevy Colorado pickup truck. Sixty-seconds later, everything changed.
For reasons that may never be known, David began driving so fast that it terrified the others. Rochelle and Destiny remember screaming at David, “Slow down! We have Children!” David lost control of the truck just a half mile up Walnut. Upon hearing the screech of tires and a loud boom, startled residents rushed from their houses to help. When paramedics arrived a few minutes later, they found the truck’s cab wrapped around a roadside tree.
In the summer of 2001 we took Paul, then 15, and Roxanne, 14, to our family cabin in Glacier Park, Montana, where they had a string of brand-new experiences: they rode horses, white-water rafted, canoed down a river, chased mountain goats and hung out with my 80-year-old mother, Liz, who happily fussed over them as if they were her own grandchildren. In 2006 we shared his joy when Paul and Destiny brought a beautiful baby girl into the world, whom they named Emery. Similarly, we were excited for him when he found a job as a salesman with Mullahey Chevrolet in Fullerton in February of 2008. The young man with the enormous smile and the willing attitude quickly endeared himself to both staff and customers. Just four months ago Paul was promoted to sales manager.
We got the call from Roxanne on Sunday afternoon. She was only able to say my name several times, sobbing, until her grandma took the phone from her to tell us Paul had died. At first we were simply in shock. Later, as we thought more clearly, we searched for news of the crash on the Internet and discovered that Rochelle was in critical condition, as was Destiny. It was not certain that they would survive. Jimmy, the birthday boy and father of Rochelle’s child-to-be, was dead too, as was David and his wife, leaving behind their two children. We drove to UCI Medical Center where our own pain and loss was dwarfed by the soul-wrenching agony we saw in the eyes of Roxanne and the rest of the Romero family, whose lives were irrevocably shattered.
Now that more than a week has passed, Rochelle is off the critical list, as is her unborn baby. She has a badly injured spine, various broken bones, and must now piece together a life that includes the loss of her boyfriend and her brother.
Thursday afternoon, Destiny Mendoza, who has undergone multiple risky spinal surgeries, was finally told, along with five-year-old Emery, that Paul is gone. Destiny, still frighteningly weak, replied to her distraught family. “Yes, I know. Paul told me in a dream everything that happened.”
Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.
POST SCRIPT: Rose Hills Mortuary has opened a fund to help Paul’s family with the burial costs, and can accept credit card payments. Phone: (562) 692-1212, ext. 5207, Funeral #212813, Paul Romero, Jr. Rose Hills will stop accepting donations when Paul’s burial costs are covered. Mullahey Chevrolet and staff have donated a sizable amount to help Paul’s family and are collecting donations for Paul Romero’s family at 600 West Commonwealth Ave. Fullerton, CA 92832.
EDITOR’S POST SCRIPT: Tuesday night Phil received word that, despite earlier optimistic prognostications, Paul’s younger sister Rochelle has lost her baby after all.
NOTE: Paul is at the center of the Romero family photo above, Destiny is just to his right. Emery, their daughter is being held by her aunt Raelyn.
The photo was taken in 2010 at Roxanne’s graduation from Coast Community College. She has just been accepted as a transfer student to Cal State Fullerton, the first of her family to go to college.