A driver who witnessed part of a fiery crash that killed five people on Highway 101 nearly 19 months ago testified Thursday that the young man charged in the case "flew past" him just moments before the rear-end collision in stop-and-go traffic.

The testimony came in the first day of a preliminary hearing for Ryan Karr, 27, who is facing felony and misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges in the deaths of five of six members of a family who were headed north on the highway in their Honda Civic.

Five of the six occupants of the Civic were killed in the Jan. 19, 2007, crash: Maria Lopez Camacho, 54; Fernando Flores Carlos, 7; Almadelia Mendera-Basurto, 16; and Edith Carlos Medina, 23, all of Windsor; and Carmina Solorio, 23, of Mexico. The only survivor, Christian Flores Carlos, then 4, was severely burned.

Karr, who was not seriously injured in the crash, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is free on bail.

Shortly after the collision, Karr told CHP officers he was distracted momentarily before his Mitsubishi Eclipse struck the Civic, which caught fire and trapped the six people inside. Officers said at the time there was no indication of alcohol involvement.

The case has elicited strong emotions from Sonoma County residents. Many sympathize with the victims, but wonder if the outcome would have been different had the compact car not been loaded with six people.

Others believe Karr committed an understandable mistake, yet some say a Latino whose actions led to the deaths of five whites wouldn't have been free for a year before charges were filed.

In court Thursday, Francisco Castro, 28, testified that he was heading north on 101 south of Airport Boulevard about 6 p.m. when he noticed the Eclipse approaching him quickly from behind after both of them had broken out of a traffic jam.

"He just flew right by me," he said. "I remember thinking, 'I hope he slows down. He's got to slow down.' . . . He never slowed down. He just rear-ended that vehicle." He estimated the Eclipse was traveling at 60 to 70 mph and that he was traveling at between 40 and 50 mph.

Castro testified that the family's car was stopped or moving very slowly in the fast lane when the Eclipse struck from behind.

Karr's attorney, Andy Martinez, questioned Castro's recollection of the speeds, distances and road conditions.

The charges against Karr include five felony counts of vehicular manslaughter and five misdemeanor counts of manslaughter. Karr voluntarily submitted a blood sample shortly after the crash, according to the CHP.

Moments after the impact, Castro said under questioning by prosecutor Chuck Arden, the Civic burst into flames and within seconds "it had turned into a huge, huge ball of fire."

The Civic's back seat was crushed forward, Castro said, and "completely burned." He said he couldn't tell if any of the occupants were still alive as flames engulfed the small car.

Citizens and law enforcement personnel tried to rescue the occupants, but only one survived.

Karr, dressed in a gray sweater Thursday and seated next to his attorney, looked downward as Castro described seeing an injured woman in the front seat.

"It was too hot to get close to," Castro testified. "Everything in the back seat was on fire."

A Sonoma County sheriff's sergeant testified that when he arrived at the scene, about two minutes after another deputy reported a car on fire, flames as high as 20 feet were shooting from the Civic. He testified that he smelled gas and saw roiling black smoke and dark orange flames as people tried to rescue the occupants.

Following the preliminary hearing, Judge Lawrence Antolini will determine if there is enough evidence to move toward trial.

The hearing will continue this morning with testimony from the coroner's unit detective who initially called in the fire and later conducted the death investigation.

You can reach Staff Writer L.A. Carter at 568-5312 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.