Annette Agosta answered her front door with a cell pressed to her ear. “But wait – are you saying that’s my responsibility?” she asked the person on the other end of the line.
Ten minutes later, she was off the phone – “Sorry,” Agosta apologized, “that was a State Farm adjuster” — for the time being, anyway.
Over the past few days, Agosta has spent hour upon hour talking with her homeowners insurance carrier, the City of Garden Grove and the police department. All the while, a strong smell of gasoline wafts from the bleak apocalypse that is now her backyard.
It’s the result of what happened in the early morning of Friday, March 12, when a three-ton Dodge Ram pickup slammed through Agosta’s backyard wall — landing upside down, nose first, in her swimming pool. The crash left three men dead, two in the truck and one in a passing car.
“The truck was so crumpled that I thought it was a Volkswagen bug at first,” Agosta, 70, said.
When horrific collisions intersect with private property, those inside the vehicles are not the only victims. Residents, too, must deal with the aftermath – the shock of witnessing such a terrible event and the stress, emotional and otherwise, of its destruction.
“I haven’t stopped shaking,” said Renee Robinson, 51, a renter who shares Agosta’s house. “It’s like living in an endless nightmare.”
Four days later, jarring reminders of the catastrophe still abound: The murky pool water contaminated with gallons of leaked fuel; a turquoise rag bobbing up; red shards of headlight scattered on the cement; felled pink flamingos that once decorated a garden; uprooted shrubbery.
On the afternoon of the disaster, Garden Grove City Councilman John O’Neill hammered up temporary plastic fencing to bridge the 28-foot gap in the wall. “It was a very kind gesture,” Agosta said.
Initially, Agosta could see debris now obscured by the water’s oily film – a cellphone, a car manual, eyeglasses, a set of keys. “It’s all down there,” she said, “somewhere.”
And just on the other side of the 6-foot-high wall, two separate memorials have sprung up – featuring an array of photos, notes and candles. Mourners peer into Agosta’s backyard as they huddle to pay respects.
A friend of the men in the truck asked if he could search the pool to retrieve belongings. Agosta declined.
Her spacious L-shaped backyard edges the busy corner of Orangewood Avenue and Euclid Street. Bedrooms open up to the side lawn, while the living area overlooks the pool.
Agosta and Robinson were sound were asleep when the truck burst through cinder block at 2:15 a.m.
“I heard a loud boom and thought, ‘Did an airplane fall out of the sky?’” Agosta said. Panicked, she and Robinson met up outside.
Before they could even process the sight of a vehicle sticking out of the pool, police cars arrived. An officer had been pursuing the truck for more than two miles, after it sped through a parking lot on Chapman Avenue and Harbor Boulevard.
“One of the officers jumped into the pool immediately and tried to open the driver’s door,” Agosta recalled. “Then he yelled out that the person was already dead.”
The housemates soon would learn of a another tragedy. Right before striking the wall, the westbound truck smashed into a sedan on Orangewood – killing Michael Clugston, 39. The Anaheim father had been commuting to his job.
For nine hours, Agosta and Robinson helplessly observed the commotion from the patio.
To their horror, when the truck was finally hoisted up, a second body was found. Agosta ducked inside her house but Robinson watched the excavation.
Now, Robinson said, her mind constantly flashes back to the deceased men’s shirts, shoes and shaved heads – images that in normal circumstances would be unremarkable.
Sal Fernandez, 34, and Joseph Mendoza, 24, died in the pickup. Their last known addresses were in Los Angeles County.
Garden Grove Police spokesman Lt. Mario Martinez said Wednesday, March 17, that the California Highway Patrol, which leads the investigation, has not yet released information about which man was driving.
According to a police department press release, Fernandez and Mendoza “both had extensive criminal histories.” Authorities found a loaded handgun, a catalytic converter and a power saw inside the truck.
Agosta and Robinson have spoken across the wall with people visiting the separate tributes — one for Clugston, and another for Fernandez and Mendoza.
“We give our condolences to all,” Agosta said. “Everyone is so shaken up. There’s a lot of grief.”
The families of the men in the truck, she added, “were so apologetic for what happened to us.”
Robinson choked up talking about the third man’s wife, Stefani Clugston. “She told us he always texted her when he got to work,” Robinson said. “So when he didn’t, she kept texting and calling.”
A “Go Fund Me” account set up for Clugston’s funeral expenses describes him as “a family man with a huge heart (who) married the love of his life of many years last July.” He also left behind his parents, two brothers, a daughter. a granddaughter and stepchildren.
Agosta has lived in the pleasant house on Elizabeth Street since she was a teen. Her parents bought it in 1968 and she stayed on, eventually caring for them in their old age. Now retired, she worked in the family florist business and as a preschool teacher.
To make matters all the more chaotic, Agosta was in mid-remodel before the crash – dealing with contractors, painters, roofers and tile installers. Windows are covered with plastic and furniture shoved aside for refurbished flooring.
“I finally decided to bring my house into the 2000s,” she said.
What Agosta didn’t count on was a suddenly essential redo of the pool and landscaping. Disposing of the contaminated water will require hazardous waste remediation. “You can’t just drain gasoline into the sewer system,” Agosta said.
The pool will need resurfacing. And, technically, Agosta is responsible for the city-built wall.
So the question looms large: Who pays for what? Agosta hopes her insurance company and the city can reach a deal that leaves her free and clear.
Now comes the maze of red tape – the left hand telling her one thing and the right hand, even within the same entity, providing different instructions.
“You know that saying, ‘You can’t fight City Hall’? Well, I’m going to fight City Hall,” Agosta said with a determined chuckle.
For now, her backyard looks like a bomb site. But Agosta feels optimistic that this, too, shall pass.
“My pool will be beautiful again, someday,” she said.
“I know I’ll be able to enjoy it. But I’ll always have those awful memories.”
Source: Orange County Register