Walt Capelli and his 6-year-old son watched from their front lawn Sunday as an 18-wheeler skidded across the road in front of their home, taking down a telephone pole and wires before hitting a tree.
He assumed it had blown a tire and the driver lost control. It wasn’t until he got closer to see if the truck driver was injured that he realized the flattened wreckage under the truck’s cab was an upside-down car.
“It was completely silent. I said, ‘no one survived that,’” Capelli said Tuesday.
The silence didn’t last long though. A boy’s screams started coming from the wreck.
It was an 11-year-old who was was the only one of a Bridgeton family of four to survive the Sunday crash. He’s now in stable condition after emergency surgery that night, police said.
Police say his sister, Mariela Cardoso-Baez, 19, pulled out in front of the truck hauling propane on West Boulevard Sunday. She was killed along with her parents, Jose Cardoso, 44, and Adriana Baez Mellado, 45.
Capelli said he and another neighbor used fire extinguishers to put out fires in the car — worrying it would ignite the giant propane tank and cause an explosion. Capelli eventually used a garden hose to put out the fire, not realizing their were live wires on the other side of the wreck.
“Then I heard screaming from inside the car,” Capelli said. “I talked to him and told him help was coming.”
Police said it took more than two hours to pull the victims from the wreckage, partly due to the live wires. For the neighbors who heard the boy suffering, it seemed like an excruciatingly long time before they saw the boy hoisted onto a stretcher.
“We did everything we possibly could. We wish we could have done more,” said Jennifer Piraino-Webster, of West Boulevard. She said someone on scene had initially told her there were no survivors, so she was so relieved to learn the boy lived.
Meanwhile, the relatives and loved ones of the victims are grieving and community members are stepping up to try to help them.
Coworkers of Cardoso-Baez at Order Express in Bridgeton have taken up a collection for the family. So have staff at Bridgeton Public Schools, where the 19-year-old graduated in 2017 and where her brother is in the fifth grade. A GoFundMe campaign started to help with funeral expenses has raised over $6,200 of a $30,000 goal as of Tuesday afternoon.
Michaela Perez, 34, said Mariela Cardoso-Baez was well-liked by coworkers and customers at Order Express, and her absence in the office has been hard.
“She was a good person, very kind. She cared a lot about her family members, especially her little brother,” she said. “She would always rush to pick him up from school. She was very responsible for her brother and talked a lot about him.”
Perez said Cardoso-Baez was looking forward to an upcoming vacation to Mexico to visit her grandparents. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. and Cardoso-Baez was born here, Perez said.
Cardoso-Baez talked about her parents often, Perez said, worrying that they were working too hard at a wholesale nursery. She liked to take them out for dinner, and Perez said she thinks it’s likely that’s where the family was going or coming from when the crash occurred.
“It’s unbelievable, because she was so young. It’s so hard,” she said.
Rebecca Everett may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccajeverett. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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