SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – A runaway truck hauling tons of gravel flew off an embankment Tuesday and crushed a home, killing a man, a woman and a child inside, authorities said.
The truck's brakes might have failed as it careened along State Highway 154 and through two intersections, then hit two parked cars before plunging down a driveway onto the house.
"Completely flattened it," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said.
The truck driver, Joaquin Garcia Morales, had just collected a load of gravel from a nearby rock quarry.
Witnesses reported seeing smoke billowing from under the truck as it headed downhill on Highway 154 and reached 50 mph, California Highway Patrol Officer Jeremy Wayland said.
Morales managed to avoid a motel and steered the truck into a side street before crashing.
A California Highway Patrol website that logs traffic incidents initially said the brakes of the truck had failed. Wayland later said the cause remained "under investigation if it was mechanical or operational failure."
Alcohol was not suspected to be a factor, and there were no immediate charges filed.
Neighbor Elizabeth Negrete was preparing to let her dog into the back yard when she heard the crash. "It was like an earthquake," she said. "I didn't know what to do. I just panicked and just ran."
Erasmo Zapien, 64, who lives next door to the destroyed home, said he heard an enormous crash, then saw the family's house collapse.
"Everything fell down," he said. "It was completely down."
Emergency crews arrived within minutes and scrambled to dig out rubble and gravel under the truck to reach the victims.
Morales was treated for a minor facial cut after the vehicle landed on the 1,000-square-foot, wooden home that had been built more than 50 years ago.
It was one of two homes on the lot that were surrounded by mini-storage units. Both sat below the embankment and could not be seen from the roadway.
Wayland said Morales initially suspected something was wrong with his brakes after collecting his load but decided they were in good enough shape to keep driving. The tractor section of the truck was owned by Morales, who was leasing the two trailers he was hauling.
Barbra Trouche, who runs the front office at Aegis Medical Systems, called 911 when a patient who had just left ran back inside and said there had been a wreck.
"He saw the truck barreling through the intersection all the way to the end of the driveway," Trouche said.
Trouche went to look and noticed that cars belonging to two employees had been plowed aside by the truck.
Coroner's officials did not immediately identify the three in the home.
They were identified by the California Highway Patrol late Tuesday as Lorena Pachecho, Leonel Leon and Jaciel Tellez. The CHP did not have their ages.
Zapien said Leonel (Leo) Leon was 23, Lorena was 27 and Jaciel was 7. The family had moved to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, about five years ago, he said.
Leo worked as a chef and Lorena was a housewife, he said.
Zapien said he recently saw the family in good spirits preparing to celebrate Leo's 24th birthday on Friday.
"They were very friendly, very good people," he said.
Nancy Schliemann, who manages the motel near the accident scene, described the family as wonderful and said the boy would often translate for his Spanish-speaking parents.
"The little boy was the sweetest thing in the world," Schliemann said. "They were hardworking people, and it is an unnecessary loss of life."
Santa Barbara is about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. State Highway 154 is flat for about 1½ miles before it reaches the intersection.
Jablon reported from Los Angeles. AP Writers Sue Manning and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles contributed to this report.