VALE – Perla Yerena was driving west of Vale on a cloudless July morning, following behind a Nissan sedan that carried other members of her family.
The family had been on the road for days and now, two days after the Fourth of July, they were destined for a family birthday party in Fresno, California, before heading for home.
But in an instant, a driver going the other way veered head-on into the Nissan at the base of Vines Hill.
The impact propelled the two vehicles off of U.S. Highway 20. Flames soon engulfed the vehicles in one of the worst traffic accidents in recent Malheur County history.
Five people were dead – four in the Nissan and the driver who was along in the other vehicle.
Police say they likely will never know what caused Lance Lightfoot, 62, of Meridian, Idaho, to cross into the path of the Nissan.
The four in the sedan who died were the driver, Cecilia Loma, 27, and her partner and Yerena’s son, Erik Ortiz, 27, both of Carson, California; the couple’s 8-month-old daughter Atzi, and Ortiz’s brother Derik, 15.
All five victims were just passing through Malheur County at the time of the crash on Thursday, July 7.
Relatives of the California family said they had been on a road trip through Nevada, Utah and Idaho. They visited family and friends and toured museums along the way.
“We were so happy. You can feel the air is so clean,” said Yerena.
They finally made their way to the campus of Boise State University. That’s where Brian Ortiz, 20, who was riding with his mother, planned to attend college.
Erik Ortiz fell for Boise.
“He was going to build a house in Idaho and create a lake and invite the whole family to come out and fish,” said Angela Guzman, Eric Ortiz’s cousin.
Yerena said Erik wanted to pay off Cecilia’s student debt and then leave the Los Angeles area.
“He told Brian, ‘By the time you go to BSU, then we will go get a house so we can all move together,’” said Yerena.
Erik and Cecilia were both educators. Erik recently was hired at Los Angeles-area high school to be a physical education teacher while Cecilia taught math at John Adams Middle School in Los Angeles.
“He was so proud of being a teacher and to help kids. He never did anything without thinking of his brothers and me and Cecilia,” said Yerena.
Erik and Cecilia’s romance began when they were teens, said Guzman.
“Cecilia had been with my cousin since they were like 14,” said Guzman.
Cristina Alvarez, 21, Cecilia’s younger sister, remembered her as a protector.
“She was my shield. If she heard kids were bullying me, she would go out and talk to them and put a stop to it,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez said Cecilia was a “bright light in our family.”
“She wanted to change the world. Wanted to be a good educator and help students,” said Alvarez.
The two sisters kept in touch by text while the family was traveling.
The morning of the crash, Alvarez texted her sister.
The text did not deliver.
“I thought that is strange. So, when I got to work I shot her another text,” said Alvarez.
That text also failed.
A welder by trade
Meantime, Lance Lightfoot was making the final push on a 500-mile trip from Grants Pass back to the Boise area.
He had gone there to visit his dying mother, according to his sister, Holly Lightfoot-Sheehan.
“He went to say his goodbyes,” said Lightfoot-Sheehan.
Her brother had moved to the Boise area from California in the early 2000s. He was a welder and worked on transmissions. He had two children and two grandchildren.
“He was the funniest guy. Reminded me of Robin Williams in that he could never stay on topic. You couldn’t have a serious conversation with him because he was just so funny,” she said.
Lance Lightfoot was a sensitive man, she said.
“He loved to garden. Loved to golf,” said Lightfoot-Sheehan.
Lightfoot-Sheehan said her brother stopped the night before the crash, grabbing a motel room because he was exhausted.
“He was bringing my mom’s dog home. Ironically, he wanted to leave on (July) 3rd but we told him it would be safer on the 5th,” said Lightfoot-Sheehan.
Seconds to tragedy
Yerena had followed the other family out of Boise, through Ontario and Vale and on east. She had with her son Brian and three of his friends.
Ahead of her, she watched Lightfoot’s 2005 Kia Sedona veer from its lane and slam into her family.
“He was driving fine. Then he went into our lane. They couldn’t avoid it,” said Yerena.
Yerena stopped and ran to her family’s overturned vehicle. The Sedona was already afire.
With other motorists, she desperately clutched the door to rescue two of her sons, her granddaughter, and her older son’s partner.
“I hear my son making a noise. A couple stopped and tried to help me. We tried to turn over the car. We couldn’t do it. Then the car caught fire. The last thing I saw, the fire was all over the car,” said Yerena.
Family seeks help
Once firefighters quelled the fire and the deaths were confirmed, a local family offered a home for Yerena and her passengers. Guzman and another relative flew to Boise from Los Angeles to be with Yerena.
Later that morning, Alvarez learned that her sister and family had been in a “bad accident.”
“I immediately texted and said please call if possible, I love you guys. I even tried to call them. My sisters phone kept ringing and ringing. I just wanted to hear her voice,” said Alvarez.
A few hours later, Alvarez said her boyfriend found an article online about the crash.
“I was hoping against all hope that my sister was in the hospital with her family. When I saw the articles, I knew,” she said.
Guzman said she has been in shock since the accident. While Yerena wished for her sons to be cremated, Guzman said Cecilia’s family plans to bury her and her daughter.
“We are just trying to come up with the funds for the funerals. It’s a lot of expense,” said Guzman.
There are two GoFundMe pages set up for donations for the families. They are: : https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-the-aguirre-lopez-ortiz-yerena-family
Yerena said she is struggling.
“People say I am strong. I am trying. But I think I will need help. First, though, I am going to look for help for my son,” said Yerena.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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