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Missing Gas Cap Led to Deadly Explosion after Collision

June 20, 1995

BEAUMONT, Calif. (AP) _ A missing gas cap turned a car into a fiery coffin for six children and two adults after it was rammed by a drunken driver, authorities said.

``It went from being a bad accident with broken bones ... to a tragedy,″ California Highway Patrol spokesman Bob Nickel said Monday.

Only three of the 11 people packed into the 1968 Plymouth Valiant survived the crash late Sunday on a freeway about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. After the Valiant crashed into the center divider and overturned, squirting gas coated the car and it exploded, Nickel said.

An eyewitness, Stan Maloof, said the survivors crawled out of the car.

``It was like something out of a movie that you don’t want to see,″ said Lee Page, who was driving with Maloof. ``We heard the shrieks coming from the car as they were burning alive. It was heart-wrenching.″

Page and his two passengers followed the driver of the pickup as he fled the scene and called police on a cellular phone.

A 9-year-old girl was in critical condition today with third-degree burns over 48 percent of her body. Her name was not released. Mercedes Diaz, 40, was in good condition with minor injuries. Jose Rodrigues, 39, suffered minor injuries, but was listed in serious condition because he was distraught with grief, hospital officials said.

Diaz and Rodrigues were believed to be the parents and grandparents of the victims.

The driver of the pickup that struck the car, Teodolo Gallardo Bermudes, suffered only bruises because his car had an air bag. Nickel said.

Bermudes, 35, who has three previous drunken driving convictions, failed an intoxication test when he was stopped by police, Nickel said. Results of a blood-alcohol test won’t be available for about a week.

``I feel bad. I feel sadness. I won’t pay even with my life, but I deserve to pay,″ Bermudes told reporters Monday.

He was booked for investigation of murder, driving with a suspended license and hit-and-run.

No seat belts or child seats were in use in the Valiant, Nickel said.

The Riverside County coroner’s office listed the dead as Mayra Rodriguez, 19; her boyfriend Antonio Madrigal, 21; their children, 2-year-old Carina Madrigal and 2-month-old Antonia Madrigal; Mayra Rodriguez’s child Swleima Zamora, 3; Fidela Morgutia, 12; and brothers Jairo Rodriguez, 9, and Omar Rodriguez, 4.

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