Twilight was giving way to darkness on Wednesday, April 19, as Sabrina Delahanty and Troy Vessey came upon the chaotic aftermath of a car crash.
The two, who work for Southwest Airlines at the Tucson airport, were on their way home from Fry’s, where they bought tickets to the Pima County Fair.
The couple’s Jeep had just made a left turn onto South Campbell Avenue from East Irvington Road when they saw a mangled tan car, a dented black Ford Explorer, a crowd of people and a bundle or bag of something lying in the middle of the road. They thought the bundle must be groceries.
As Troy drove closer to the scene Sabrina, 31, got a better look at the vehicles.
“There’s a body under the car,” she told Troy, fixing her gaze on the tan car.
Troy, 42, told Sabrina he was pulling over. There was no sign of any police or fire officials.
And then Troy looked again at the bundle they thought they’d seen strewn in the middle of the road, a few feet east of the tan car.
The bundle in the road wasn’t groceries. It was a human leg, lying on its own.
• • •
Nayelly Santos had just made dinner and was upstairs in her south-side home using her computer when she got the call from her teenage daughter, Vanessa Marin.
“There was a lot of noise and commotion in the background,” Nayelly said. “I heard this little voice say, ‘Mom’. Then I heard her say, ‘Tía Norma.’ ”
Vanessa was able to get out a few words — Campbell and Irvington. Bad accident. Tía Norma is hurt.
Felix and Maria Moreira were on their way to get dinner at Taco Bell after attending Mass when their SUV stalled.
It was April 19. The sun had just set, the temperature was in the 80s, the weather was clear, and 32-year-old Norma Santos Trujillo was directly behind the SUV, driving her 2013 blue Dodge Avenger sedan. She was, as usual, in a hurry. Her niece, 16-year-old Vanessa Marin, was in the passenger seat.
Like the SUV, Norma was on East Irvington, in the right-hand turn lane, waiting to turn south onto Campbell.
She watched the hazard lights go on. A man who looked to be in his 40s or 50s was pushing and a woman was at the steering wheel. The large, black SUV wasn’t budging.
Norma, an extroverted, athletic mother of three, was driving Vanessa home from a soccer practice, where they had both coached Norma’s daughter’s team. Norma was starting a new job in a medical laboratory in less than an hour. They’d left soccer later than expected.
“I feel like I should help,” Norma told Vanessa as she watched the man struggling to push his SUV.
“Switch!” she directed Vanessa, before Vanessa had a chance to respond.
Vanessa felt a nervous pang about taking the wheel, though she had her learner’s permit. But her aunt was out the car door, so Vanessa moved into the driver’s seat.
Norma was Vanessa’s “funny, goofy” aunt, the bubbly, fun-loving sibling in her tight-knit family of seven children. Tía Norma had a high-pitched voice, hysterical laugh and tiny stature — she stood just five feet tall.
Norma had a history of spontaneous and trusting generosity, sometimes giving her lunch away to homeless men on the way to school when she was a child growing up in El Paso. She was known to chat — often at length — with strangers, especially if they appeared lonely.
During a recent night out walking along North Fourth Avenue with her husband and friends, Norma saw a college student who’d had too much to drink. The young woman tripped and spilled all the contents of her purse onto the street.
Norma turned back, steadied the young woman, picked up all the items from the road and put them back in the student’s purse. Her husband, Michael Trujillo, was slightly annoyed by the delay. But what could he do but roll his eyes? That was just so Norma.
Norma’s parents, Carmen Santos and Ramon Santos Sr., had raised their children with similar values: When someone is in need, make a way to help.
Do you need help?
Walking over to the SUV — a 1998 Ford Explorer — a smiling Norma, wearing black track pants, a black T-shirt and pink and purple running shoes from soccer practice, greeted Felix Moreira, a 48-year-old service technician for a furniture store.
“I see you are struggling. Do you need help?” she asked.
Felix thanked her and they positioned themselves with their backs to the vehicle, facing out.
Felix’s wife, Maria, 44, remained in the driver’s seat to steer the vehicle. Then a third man, wearing a red hat and a muscle shirt, walked over from the parking lot at the nearby Walgreens and offered to help.
“We were pushing with our feet. I was on the passenger side, and Norma is directly behind Maria. The third guy was in the middle,” Felix said.
The three managed to get the Explorer around the corner into the right hand lane of South Campbell. Maria planned to steer it into the bus pullout just a few more feet ahead, to get away from traffic.
Johnny Lopez had noticed the stalled Ford Explorer when he parked his car at Walgreens, where he and his wife were going to get cold medication.
Johnny considered going over to help, but there seemed to be enough people. The 48-year-old appliance service technician was inside Walgreens when he heard the sickening bang of steel on steel.
That was at 7:24 p.m., police reports show. He ran out of the store.
“Where’s the girl?”
Vanessa heard the thunderous crash as she reached down for the lever to adjust the seat in her aunt’s car.
“I was getting ready to turn right,” she said. “I saw the man who had been pushing the car. Then I saw a swarm of people running.”
Vanessa was confused and trying to figure out what had happened. She put Norma’s car in park. Then she got out to look for her aunt.
She saw a tan-colored car facing south, its front a steaming, sputtering mess of twisted metal. The car had plowed into the Ford Explorer.
“Everyone was looking under the car,” Vanessa said. “I am thinking, no way can it be her. Finally I look under and I start screaming.”
The impact of the crash pushed the Ford Explorer about four car lengths. Maria slammed into the steering wheel.
Maria wasn’t thinking about her injuries. She was certain that all three people who had been pushing the Explorer, including her husband, Felix, had been killed.
University of Arizona student Sergio Castro had been traveling south on Campbell in a 1988 tan-colored Chevy Beretta, crossed through the intersection with Irvington, and apparently did not see the Explorer until it was too late.
At least one witness reported hearing a screech before the crash, but most said they heard no sounds of braking. Rather, they said Sergio slammed into the Explorer at full speed. The speed limit on that section of road is 40 mph.
Sergio’s car came at the Explorer so suddenly that Felix and the man in the red hat didn’t have time to jump out of the way. But they were uninjured.
“I saw my life flash before my eyes. My ears were ringing. It hit so hard,” Felix said.
It’s possible Sergio tried to swerve at the last minute. His car was damaged on the right front side, and he’d hit the Ford Explorer on its back left side, smack behind the driver’s side. His car hit precisely at the spot where Norma was standing, striking her just above the knees.
“It happened fast,” Felix said. “Then I looked around and said, ‘Where’s the girl?’ ”
“I hit someone”
Norma’s right leg flew off on impact. The other was still attached, but barely. Sergio’s car pushed her onto her back and pinned her underneath.
Sergio, a 25-year-old UA honors education major, had been driving home from an awards ceremony.
He had just been named Outstanding Junior 2017 by the UA Honors College and had celebrated with his sister and her family.
Sergio said he doesn’t drink and wasn’t texting. His cell phone was in his front pocket. The crash occurred less than a mile from the home of his 92-year-old aunt. Sergio had recently moved in to be the older woman’s caregiver.
He could not remember seeing the Ford Explorer. He remembered that at some point his glasses, which he needs to see, fell off his face and onto his stomach. But he recalled putting them back on before going through the green light to cross Irvington.
“The traffic light was green, it was normal. That’s the last thing I remember,” Sergio said. “The next thing, I remember coming to. There was smoke because I hit the car in front of me. Someone came up and said I’d hit someone. I thought he meant the car.”
Shaken up and angry, Felix confronted Sergio.
“There’s a lady under your car, and she’s missing her legs,” he shouted.
Sergio got out of his car and could see Norma underneath. He called 911, then called his sister and began to cry.
“I was in an accident. I hit someone,” he told Melissa Gallegos.
“What do you mean? Are they OK?” Melissa responded.
“No, she’s not,” Sergio replied. “She’s in pieces.”
“Move that car”
Johnny Lopez had run from Walgreens to the scene, and he could see that a woman was facing up and trapped under the wreckage of the tan car.
“I saw the muffler was burning her. You could smell the skin,” he said. “I knew she was going to die if we didn’t move that car off of her.”
Johnny started yelling for people to help. He got angry that some people were just standing and watching, and not doing anything to help. Some people were taking videos with their phones.
Troy Vessey had just parked his car on the side of Campbell and ran to the scene. His girlfriend, Sabrina, stayed in the car.
“I could hear sizzling, like if you put steak on a grill,” Troy said.
“Three of us were kind of like, we’ve got to get the car off of her. We just knew it would be one less thing for the paramedics to do when they got here. It was life or death. It was instinctive.”
They gathered a group of about seven or eight men, including Troy, Johnny, Sergio and Felix, and positioned themselves around Sergio’s car. Troy was at the rear passenger wheel well.
One man shouted that they needed to get the car off Norma and drag her out. But Troy — a military veteran — knew that moving the body could put Norma in danger. He shouted back that it would be much too dangerous to move the body.
The men lifted up the back of Sergio’s south-facing car and carefully pivoted it clockwise, so it was facing west toward Walgreens.
With Troy shouting directions, they made sure not to step on Norma. By that point she was bleeding heavily. Johnny was wearing sandals and remembers being afraid of slipping on the wet road. Troy’s running shoes were covered in blood.
Troy and the other men stood back on the sidewalk. Now that the car was off of her, they could get a better look at Norma.
“She was wheezing really hard. I told her to take little breaths,” Troy said. “I told Sabrina, ‘I don’t think she’s going to make it through the night.’ It was pretty dire.”
Reports from Tucson Fire Department paramedics, who were at the scene by 7:28 p.m., say she had lost a lot of blood — more than one-third of her blood volume. Her pulse was weak, her breathing was shallow. Initially her eyes were open, but they were closing.
In addition to her severe leg injuries, Norma had extensive burns from being under the car. The skin on her right arm, hand and upper torso was charred, torn, dirty from the asphalt and slick with blood and engine oil grease.
“God was there”
As paramedics worked on Norma, Troy saw a woman frantically running across the street.
Norma’s eldest sibling, 40-year-old Nayelly Santos, ran to her sister so quickly that she got hit by a slow-moving car as she crossed South Campbell Avenue.
“Ma’am, you can’t talk to her,” one of the first responders said as Nayelly elbowed her way through the crowd to get to Norma.
“That’s my sister!” she yelled, and then shouted at the people taking photos and videos with their phones to shut them off.
Troy got behind Nayelly and told her that for Norma’s sake, she needed to calm down.
“Everything is going to be OK,” Nayelly told Norma, whose face and body had swollen up so much she was barely recognizable.
She recalled Norma making noise, as if she was trying to say something. At that moment, she strongly sensed that God was there with both of them.
“I was crying. It looked like she had no neck. There was a burn and blood on her arm, her pants were chewed up, her left leg was hanging,” Nayelly said. “Her right leg was not there. Her shoes were gone.”
Norma’s pink and purple shoes and her glasses were in a puddle of blood in the intersection.
“She’s this person who has her whole life in front of her,” Nayelly found herself saying. “All these things planned out.”
Other family members started arriving. Norma’s parents and her husband.
Michael and Norma graduated from Cholla High School one year apart and had met through Michael’s cousin, Racquel Williamson, who was also Norma’s close friend and high school soccer teammate. Norma had been captain of the Cholla High soccer team in her senior year.
Michael’s quiet, methodical nature provided a balance for Norma’s outgoing energy and social ease. She was beautiful but not intimidating. Michael could tell her anything, and he never felt judged.
Norma shared and appreciated Michael’s dry sense of humor, admired his work ethic and was drawn to his love of family. They both listened to Foo Fighters and punk rock, and as they got to know each other, they grew fond of jazz together.
Norma and Michael had been a couple since they were teenagers and had three children together — 10-year-old Josslyn and 3-year-old twins Kaleb and Dean. They had been married since 2012.
Recently, though, they’d been having problems. Norma was working as a medical assistant, Michael was working as a grants administrator at the UA and also driving an Uber to earn extra money. Between parenting and working, their relationship had suffered.
In February, Norma had moved out of their southwest-side house into a nearby apartment on East Irvington Road.
When his sister-in-law Nayelly called just before 7:30 p.m. on April 19, Michael was heading home from soccer practice with Josslyn. Nayelly was hysterical.
“Norma. It’s bad. Campbell and Irvington,” she said.
Michael, 33, had just seen Norma at soccer practice.
“I had Josslyn in the back seat. Literally I had to tell myself to drive safe,” Michael said. “When we get there, I need you to be by me,” he told Josslyn. “Something has happened to Mom.”
By the time he got to the crash site, Michael was sobbing.
The crash scene was baffling. Norma’s car, hazards on, had no damage. A firetruck in front of a crumpled tan-colored car and a black SUV had its siren on. He looked closer, onto the road near a crowd of people.
“I see Norma lying face up. There is a pool of blood and one of her legs is off. Josslyn is crying hysterically, trying to get to her mother,” Michael said. “The cop told me to get Josslyn out of there. I grabbed Josslyn and started hugging her.”
Michael thought he saw paramedics pull out a body bag.
“To me that meant she was dead,” he said. “I just stood there holding Josslyn.”
The paramedics took Norma away. Officers would only tell Michael that she was still breathing and that she was on her way to the hospital.
Norma’s eldest brother Ramon Santos, 38, arrived after the ambulance left. Ramon and his wife, Ana, drove Michael and Josslyn to Banner-University Medical Center Tucson.
“Josslyn went from hysteria to really quiet in the car,” Michael said. “I would cry and then stop.”
Johnny Lopez went home and prayed that Norma would live.
Officers closed Campbell and stayed at the scene talking to witnesses. Vanessa had been sick to her stomach and sat down on a rock.
Across the street, Sergio Castro sat on a curb, where officers had positioned him away from Norma’s family. He was staring into space. Police confiscated his cellphone.
Vanessa, accompanied by her mother Nayelly, stayed at the scene until about 12:30 a.m. answering detectives’ questions.
At the hospital, Michael, Josslyn and other family members began gathering in the emergency department.
“It felt like forever,” Michael said. “We waited and waited and waited.”
Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at firstname.lastname@example.org