One lane change, many changed lives
By: Eddie Rivera (News Editor)
They were just hanging out that night. Six friends with nowhere to go. Josh Gardner, 20, of Lake View Terrace, was with his friend, Ryan, 24, of Sylmar. Ryan’s first name was actually Michael, but his friends and family called him Ryan.
It’s a familiar story perhaps, the only difference being that you might have known the kids involved. You might have known the parents. You might have held your children a little tighter that night, as you watched the grim TV news reports or followed the story on Facebook, as many had.
It was Christmas time—December 15 of last year, to be exact. Ryan had called his buddy the night before. He, Ryan, was troubled. Things weren’t going well in his life. He wanted someone to get together with and talk to.
Ryan was older than Josh and his friends, a bit of a Pied Piper type, as one friend described him. A family photo shows a chubby, smiling, overgrown teenager in a backyard swimming pool, with a young niece.
Josh suggested that he and Ryan get together the following night. So late in the afternoon the next day, Ryan came by in his modified Toyota 4Runner to pick up Josh. Their first stop was for beer. Josh put up the money, and Ryan went in to buy it.
“So he picked me up,” Josh said, recalling the evening as he sat with his girlfriend, Krissie Smith, and his mother last week at the local Starbucks for an interview with The Foothill Record. Josh has agreed to tell the story of that night, to set the record straight, and in the hopes that his tale is the one that changes anyone else’s mind about driving after “just two or three beers.”
Josh thought it would be just the two of them that night, but there were two other friends already in the 4Runner with Ryan, and Josh decided to invite Krissie. He picked her up near her home, close to 5:30 p.m.
“We went driving around for a little bit,” said Josh, “and eventually we ended up at Orcas Park” in Lake View Terrace, he remembered.
The friends sat at the benches there, near the horse arena, just talking, just hanging out, the six of them.
“And that’s when we made the stupid decision to get back in the truck and head back into town,” Josh said, fidgeting with the plastic lid of his coffee cup and shrugging sheepishly. He was wearing a spinal brace. Leaning against the table was his walker.
The night of December 15 was cloudy and damp, with temperatures in the 50s and a slight wind out of the southeast. None of the six friends were wearing seatbelts because the modified 4Runner had none.
“I remember that I was just so tired that night,” Krissie said. “I had finals the next day,” at Mission College, “and I really just wanted to go home to go to sleep, to be ready. So, I was basically sleeping on Josh in the back seat.”
By then Josh’s parents had settled into their seats at the Land Use Committee meeting of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council in Tujunga, a few miles away.
Ryan steered the 4Runner into the curve on Foothill Boulevard, out of Lake View Terrace toward Sunland, and onto the bridge over the Tujunga Wash, just before the Angeles National Golf Course. Impatient, he suddenly gunned the engine to pass another car, somewhere near the middle of the bridge, and moved into oncoming traffic. He tried to move back into his lane just before crashing into the GMC.
“I was just going to ask if they could drop me off, and then ask Josh if he could come over instead of going out with them again, and then I just remember headlights,” Krissie said, quietly.
“It all happened in a split second. He [Ryan] yelled out, through his arm back, and tried to pull back into our lane,” said Josh. The force of the nearly full-speed impact with the oncoming GMC truck sent the 4Runner spinning and rolling, at least a few times, as Josh described the crash, using the cell phones on the table to depict the position of the cars and the impact.
“Everyone braced, and I just remember it was completely silent afterwards.”
Josh crawled out of the passenger door, which was now the roof, after the 4Runner had finally come to a stop, far from the initial crash. “I was just walking, and when I realized what happened, I started yelling for Krissie, and then I saw her and two of my other friends crawling out.”
Josh remembered his cell phone flying out of his vest pocket, and he began to look for it as he limped back to the crash site. (He had fractured a vertebrae, he later learned.) Winded, he dropped to one knee for a moment. As he kneeled, he looked back over to the sidewalk.
“I looked over and saw part of my friend’s brain. At first, it wasn’t quite clicking what it was, so I looked at it, poked it, and picked it up. I stood up and looked back at the truck we had hit, and looked back at our car, and that’s when I freaked out and started running back to our car.”
Ryan’s head had repeatedly slammed the pavement as the 4Runner flipped, rolled, and slid. He was pronounced dead of “blunt head trauma” by paramedics later at the scene.
Another friend, who had been sleeping in the back of the 4Runner, was thrown from the wreckage and hit his head on a light pole. The friend who had been seated next to Josh and Krissie eventually made his way out and was sitting against the bridge railing.
Josh, who could see Ryan’s leg sticking out of the 4Runner, went over to the truck to try to rouse Ryan.
“I shook him and tried to wake him. I could see his face, and then I could sort of see the back of his head.”
Josh called out for a cell phone, as a crowd began to gather. He called anyone he could, anyone who might answer. Finally, his father answered, and he and Josh’s mother rushed to the scene.
By now, Josh was aware of the photography flashes around him and his friends, as his mother remembered the photographer out there that night.
“He was there, dressed as a fireman,” she said, shaking her head in anger and disgust at the memory.
Josh was taken to a hospital by ambulance (and was eventually transferred to Kaiser on Sunset), but only after wailing at the ambulance personnel to retrieve Krissie so she could accompany him. She had suffered only a painful abrasion, as had most of the passengers, as the 4Runner skidded along the street, its windows blown out in the crash. The driver of the GMC truck was treated for leg injuries by paramedics at the scene.
“It’s really the kind of thing you never imagine happening to you,” Josh said. “I see my friends now, and if there’s drinking involved, I just don’t go.” Josh will be in a back brace until March 31 and is expected to make a full recovery. For now the walker takes him where he needs to go.
Josh’s mother said at the interview, “Really, if just one person hears this story and it changes their life or helps them make the right decision in a similar situation, then it’s worth it to be here tonight, talking about this,” as Josh nodded, clutching Krissie’s hand tightly.
Krissie’s teacher’s passed her forward, excusing her from her final exams. She is currently majoring in veterinary technology.
Ryan’s family and friends began a fundraising campaign to raise money for his funeral expenses. They raised a little more than half of their goal.