Updated Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 03:01 PM
Elvira Garcia Jimenez, a 40-year-old doctor at a Tijuana, Mexico hospital, brought along her mother and her teenage son on a day trip to a Southern California ski resort with a tight knit group of her co-workers.
None of the three would return.
They were among seven people killed when their California tour bus crashed on a two-lane highway on a return trip from the mountain resort of Big Bear over the weekend.
Jimenez's son, 13-year-old Victor Cabrera-Garcia, had wanted to see snow as a way to celebrate his birthday on Jan. 13, Luz Garcia told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
She said Cabrera-Garcia, Jimenez, and the boy's grandmother, 61-year-old Guadalupe Olivas, were all members of her ex-husband's family. All three lived together in a modest San Diego home.
"We are so sad. We hurt very much," Luz Garcia said in Spanish in a phone interview. "It's hard because we are suffering the pain from losing members from three generations. Each one hurts equally. It's horrible. It has been a nightmare."
The trio was part of a party of 10 people who were employees of the Tijuana hospital and their family members, said Samuel Gasca de los Reyes, spokesman for Mexican Institute of Health and Social Services for Baja California state workers.
"They were a very tight group," Gasca de los Reyes said. "They were very close outside of work."
Two people from the group remained in hospitalized, he said.
As loved ones grieved, federal and state investigators combed the mangled wreckage Tuesday for clues as to what caused the Sunday accident that also left dozens injured.
Authorities targeted the brakes and other equipment in their search for reasons why the driver lost control on a two-lane mountain highway in the San Bernardino Mountains on the way back to Tijuana.
The roadworthiness of the 1996 bus loomed as a key issue after the driver told investigators the brakes failed as he descended from the popular ski area. Federal records pointed to a history of brake-maintenance problems with the European-made bus.
"We are going to look very closely at the brakes as we will every other mechanical system on the bus," National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Launching a review that could take months, investigators for the California Highway Patrol and NTSB began collecting evidence on the bus, road conditions and possible driver error or fatigue that could have played a role in the crash.
NTSB officials were dispatched to the offices of bus operator Scapadas Magicas LLC, in National City, Calif., where they interviewed owners and employees, and gathered documents on the maintenance history of the bus, Weiss said.
The bus, its front roof collapsed and windows shattered, was towed to an auto yard in Ontario that the CHP uses to store evidence, Officer Mario Lopez said.
The bus was carrying 38 people, including the driver and a tour guide, when it left Tijuana at 5 a.m. Sunday for a daylong trip. It was returning on State Route 38, which meanders through San Bernardino National Forest, when the accident occurred around 6:30 p.m.
The four others killed were Tijuana residents Liliana Camerina Sanchez Sauceda, 24, Aleida Adriana Arce Hernandez, 38, Rubicelia Escobedo Flores, 34, and Mario Garcia Santoyo 32, authorities said.
Just before the crash, the driver had shouted to the passengers that the brakes had failed and urged them to call emergency services.
"We never expected this could happen - never," Luz Garcia said. "It's so hard."
Olivas was Luz Garcia's mother-in-law before she divorced her husband, and the grandmother of their children.
Luz Garcia said her children have not left their home since hearing the news about the deaths of their grandmother, aunt and a cousin who loved soccer and played on a local team as a goalie. He was Elvira Garcia's only son.
One of his happiest moments, she said, was getting an autographed photograph of Tijuana's soccer team, which in December won the border city's first Mexican Apertura first division football title.
"This is very painful for me," she said. "I'm sorry I can't talk more."
Blood reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat also contributed from San Diego.
NICK UT / AP
Investigators examine wreckage Monday after a tour bus accident in the Southern California mountains near San Bernardino.