Four people are dead, including two area high school coaches, after a fatal Desert Center truck crash not far from Joshua Tree National Park in California over the Memorial Day weekend. The head-on collision with a big rig occurred as four friends were returning from a river trip for the holiday. Truck crashes in the area are common.
Desert Center Truck Crash Occurred in Afternoon Holiday Traffic
The fatal semi-truck accident occurred at about 3:11 p.m. on Memorial Day (Monday, May 29, 2017) on Highway 177 about 19 miles north of Desert Center and not far from Joshua Tree.
Thirty-year-old Matt Hodges, a Corona resident, was driving a 2012 Toyota Corolla southbound at the time of the accident. Inside the vehicle, Hodges had three passengers: twenty-year-old Gabrielle “Gaby” Constante, 20-year-old Marissa Garnica, and 21-year-old Jessica Giraldo. All three were residents of Murrieta, and have been friends for years, even after they graduated high school and went to separate colleges. The group was traveling home from a river trip over the holiday weekend when the crash happened.
According to California Highway Patrol (CHP), Hodges veered into the northbound lane of the two-lane highway for “reasons that are still under investigation” when he collided head-on with a 1999 Freightliner semi-truck.
Witnesses say the impact of the collision caused debris to scatter across the roadway, and caused the semi-truck's fuel tank to separate from the vehicle, resulting in about 120 gallons of diesel fuel spilling onto the highway, according to the CHP.
Constante, Garnica, and Giraldo were all pronounced dead at the scene at approximately 4:10 p.m. First responders were able to extract Hodges, the driver of the Toyota, from the crumpled vehicle and airlift him to Corona Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at approximately 5:51 p.m.
The semi-truck driver, 55-year-old Phillip Barnnett, an Oklahoma resident, sustained no injuries in the Desert Center truck crash. Six CHP officers and 11 firefighters from the Riverside County Fire Department and Cal Fire/Riverside responded to the accident.
Officials Say Cause of Crash is Still Unknown
A section of the highway was closed for several hours after the crash, and the CHP says that an investigation is ongoing. Some details, however, seem to have been determined.
CHP Officer Ramon Perez said in a statement that “there is no reason to believe alcohol and/or drugs played a factor with either driver.”
Additionally, Perez said that both drivers (Hodges and Barnett) were wearing seatbelts at the time of the Desert Center truck crash. They are uncertain if the women traveling with Hodges had their seatbelts on, and whether that may have played a role in the severity of their injuries.
Witness Claims Driver Was Attempting to Pass
One aspect of the Desert Center truck crash that is still being debated is whether Hodges was attempting to pass when the head-on collision occurred.
Officer Perez said that CHP officials do not think Hodges was trying to pass because there weren’t any cars in front of him when the accident occurred. That information may be in contrast to reports from a witness that saw Hodges passing prior to the crash.
Brian Mumey is a retired U.S. Army infantryman from Oregon who was in California for vacation when he saw the Desert Center truck crash. According to Mumey, who spoke with the L.A. Times following the accident, Hodges appeared to be passing when he hit the semi-truck head-on. Mumey both witnessed the crash and attempted to aid Hodges, who he said had a severe head wound and was the only one still alive in the Corolla.
According to Mumey, traffic was traveling at about 60 mph, and there were a lot of pickups and RVs hauling boats on the highway. Mumey witnessed several cars pass the lineup of holiday weekend traffic by weaving in and out of their lane, including Hodges, who Mumey says passed him approximately five minutes before the collision.
“There were all kinds of people passing,” Mumey said. “I said, ‘This is crazy. Somebody’s going to get killed’.”
Ayala High School Mourning Two of Its Soccer Coaches
Hodges and Constante both coached girls’ soccer at Ruben S. Ayala High School in Chino Hills. Hodges was the girls’ varsity head soccer coach and Constante the assistant coach. Hodges had been coaching at Ayala High for four years, and Constante had just completed her second season coaching at the school. Across social media, students that the two coached sang the praises of their coaches.
Ayala athletic director Warren Reed expressed the sorrow the school was feeling over the loss.
“Our heart is breaking for the Hodges family and the Constante family,” Reed said. “These are two young people that had just started their lives and it’s very, very difficult.”
A graduation ceremony for the seniors at Ayala High School will take place on May 31, 2017, but the happiness of the occasion has been marred by the Desert Center truck crash. Grief counselors are on-site to aid students struggling with the news, and the school held a private lunchtime vigil in Hodges’ and Constante’s honor. Still, the accident has taken a heavy toll on the graduating seniors, according to Reed.
“They’re going through graduation practice right now and have to deal with the loss of two beloved coaches,” Reed said. “I’ve been here 18 years and this has probably been the hardest day.”
A soccer scholarship fund has been set up on GoFundMe in honor of Constante. Details on services for the Desert Center truck crash victims have not been released.