The three small children were adjusting to their hospital rooms after spending the past few evenings in an intensive care unit.
One of the girls began cry out to her aunt, Dayanna Saldaña Mejía, who consoled her. “Aquí estoy mi amor,” she tenderly repeated. Here I am, my love. The cries receded.
Just three days earlier, Emma, 5, Elena, 4, and Samantha, 1, rode in their family’s car in Newport Beach with their mother, Gabriela Andrade and their father Henry Saldaña Mejía at the wheel, when a 22-year-old driver in a Range Rover slammed into them at an intersection, killing both parents.
The children survived with broken bones and other trauma injuries. Their physical health continues to improve. But the healing after losing their mother and father so suddenly has barely begun.
They know what happened, said Dayanna Saldaña Mejía, 27, Henry’s sister.
“It’s hard because sometimes I think they forget and they get concentrated with playing with all the toys they’ve been given, but I know they get sad and then they start asking questions,” she said. “We just tell them that everything’s going to be okay.”
A much different home
Separated only by 11 months, Henry Saldaña Mejía, 28, was Dayanna’s “other half,” her “best friend.” The two worked jobs together at Denny’s and later at a warehouse. Gabriela, who Dayanna called Gabby, were close friends, with their relationship beginning in high school.
The three lived together with the children and Saldaña Mejía’s grandmother in their home in Santa Ana where they grew up. Henry often turned to Dayanna for advice as his daughters continued to grow. When Henry and Gabby got into an argument, Henry also turned to her sister for guidance.
Though devastated by the death of her brother and sister-in-law, Dayanna Saldaña Mejía had little time to process the loss. She only had time to return home to take a shower and rest for a brief moment before returning to the hospital to be with Emma, 5, Elena, 4 and Samantha, 1 year old.
“Right now our main priority is that the girls get home,” Saldaña Mejía said.
But when they fully recover, they will return to a much different home.
Home for the children was a place of support, structure and love, Saldaña Mejía said. Andrade, a full-time mother, often helped the children with their homework, or for Emma, classes on Zoom, due to schools shuttered by the pandemic. Candy was off-limits. Bedtime was at 8 p.m. And when Henry Saldaña Mejía burst through the doors after work, he’d often say with a smile, “What are we eating today?”
Henry, a former cook at Denny’s, loved to prepare tasty dishes, his sister said, whipping up whatever the children wanted. He’d make pizza, the dough from scratch, or chicken wings, stirring up sauces like spicy buffalo and lemon pepper. Andrade would help him prepare the elaborate meals, encouraging him and their children’s curiosity. On one occasion, Henry constructed a breakfast burrito for his sister.
“This is really good,” Dayanna Saldaña Mejía recalled saying.
“Of course. It’s me,” Henry Saldaña Mejía said confidently. The pair laughed together.
“We had our jokes,” Dayanna said. “I was lucky enough to live with them and share those evenings.”
And as partners, Dayanna Saldaña Mejía said his brother and Andrade loved each other deeply. She recalled evenings when her brother sat with Andrade as the pair binged Andrade’s favorite show, “Grey’s Anatomy,” together.
On Tuesday evening, after a long day spent mostly inside due to a continual surge of positive COVID-19 cases across the state, the family wanted to get some fresh air, according to Dayanna Saldaña Mejía. Henry Saldaña Mejía worked in Newport Beach at the Resort At Pelican Hill as a hotel worker. He needed to grab a few things he left in his locker — his shoes, a belt and some masks. The 20-minute drive south would be an easy way to break their routine and leave the house for a bit.
Henry and Gabby sat the children in car seats inside their Nissan Versa sedan and began to drive.
Shortly after 7:45 p.m. prosecutors say, at Pelican Hill Road South and Newport Coast Drive, a Range Rover ran a red light and hit the family’s car.
Paramedics pronounced Henry Saldaña Mejía and Gaby Andrade dead at the scene.
The driver of the SUV, Grace Coleman, 22, tried to run away after the crash, authorities say, but officers quickly found her. Prosecutors allege that Coleman had a blood-alcohol content of 0.20, more than twice the legal limit for driving, and on Thursday she was charged with five felony counts, including two counts of second-degree murder, two DUI-related counts and hit-and-run.
Support pours in
Though other members of the couple’s family have been working with investigators and prosecutors, Dayanna Saldaña Mejía said she hasn’t focused too much on the criminal investigation or the court case.
“Once I start reading all that stuff, I just think about my brother and and sister-in-law, and I just stop, because I don’t want to think about those last moments. Maybe they were scared or panicked, afraid for the girls,” she said, her voice shaking.
She and Gabby’s sisters are working together to figure out how they will raise the three children together. She said she has been flooded with calls from family members, friends, and officers with the Santa Ana and Newport police departments. Donations have been pouring into a Gofundme page set up by a family attorney and another organized by Andrade’s sister.
Dayanna Saldaña Mejía said she hopes to fulfill the plans her brother and sister-in-law made for their children, including good educations and joyful visits to places like Universal Studios.
“They know mom and dad are not coming back,” Dayanna Saldaña Mejía said of the 4- and 5-year-old sisters. “They told me they know they’re up in the sky.”
At other times, though, the girls do ask: When are they coming back?
“Right now,” Saldaña Mejía said, “we have to be strong for them.”
Staff writer Alma Fausto contributed to this report.
Source: Orange County Register