Jay Hufford said he could see in the rearview mirror of his stopped car that the truck behind him was approaching too fast.
He pumped his brakes, hoping the flashing lights would alert the other driver and that he would slow.
Instead, the truck barreled into Hufford's Toyota Camry, killing Hufford's wife, Sue, 53, and mother, Sharon Hufford, 74, in the back seat.
Hufford saw them die, "as if somebody pulled the electrical plug."
"They just lost all animation, all life," he said. "I'm watching this in my rearview."
Hufford's father, Donald Hufford, 74, was severely injured in the crash at Highway 12 near Farmers Lane on Saturday evening.
The foursome was headed to the Villa restaurant off Montgomery Drive in Santa Rosa for dinner to celebrate Sue Hufford's 53rd birthday four days earlier. Her parents were to meet them there.
En route, Jay Hufford, 54, was approaching Farmers Lane on eastbound Highway 12 and was a few hundred feet back when he stopped behind traffic in the right lane to wait for a red light to change.
It was then he looked in his rearview mirror, saw the oncoming Sierra GMC pickup and "knew something bad was going to happen — the speed he was coming upon me."
"I could see him coming up, right up on me, and it's just a sick thing," Hufford said. "I'll never forget it."
CHP Officer Marcus Hawkins said the GMC driver, Nicholas Lee Tognozzi of Rohnert Park, later told an investigating officer he'd looked at his phone to read a text message.
Tognozzi, 30, also is suspected of driving drunk and was arrested and briefly jailed, the CHP said.
Authorities said his full-sized pickup slammed the passenger car with such force it shoved it 40 or 50 feet forward and crumpled everything behind the driver's seat.
Sunday, friends and family were reeling from the stunning loss. Jay Hufford, who had a 5-inch laceration on his head, spent most of the day at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where his father was in critical condition. The older man had multiple rib and other fractures and "was in a great amount of pain," said his son.
He said he and his wife, a mother of three and a well-loved music teacher in the Mark West Union School District, had just been talking last week about the serendipitous encounter decades ago that resulted in their life together.
Both students at Santa Rosa Junior College, they'd met at a Christian student club, where "she caught my eye, I caught her eye," and they realized they had an accounting class together.
Five years later, after both earned degrees at Fresno State University, they were married. Sue Hufford earned her teaching credential at San Jose State University but worked in accounting for several years, unsure of her skills with young children.
After the couple had their own children — Stephanie, who teaches English in Japan, and Joel and Jeff, who attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — she was invited to apply for an open job in the Mark West district and started there in 1999.
"She was amazing," Superintendent Ron Calloway said Sunday. "It was her drive and passion to bring music to every child. She was always so patient."