Two young Sonoma County sisters died while on their way to school Wednesday when their mother lost control of her car on Petaluma Boulevard North and crashed into the Petaluma River.
It was the second fatal crash into a Sonoma County river in eight days, following an accident on the Russian River that killed two Jenner sisters.
The girls who died Wednesday, identified by the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office as Sayra, 7, and Delilah Gonzalez, 9, of Rohnert Park, were trapped in their mother’s car, which ended upside down and submerged in the Petaluma River just after 8 a.m.
Their mother, Alexandra Hernandez, 26, also of Rohnert Park, was able to escape. The CHP reported she was not a licensed driver.
The similarities between the Aug. 22 crash near Jenner that killed 4- and 7-year-old sisters, and Wednesday morning’s are eerily grim.
Both killed young sisters. In both, mothers lost control of their vehicles, went down steep embankments and ended up in rivers. Both times, the mothers escaped. And in both cases, frantic efforts by civilians and public safety officers to reach the girls, already underwater for several minutes, played out in an emotionally charged scene with distraught family members nearby,
“The fact that we’ve had two of these in several days, it’s weighing heavily on a lot of people right now. ...I have not seen anything like this in Sonoma County since I’ve been here” the past 16 years, CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.
According to CHP, the crash occurred just after 8 a.m. north of Gossage Avenue. The CHP said Hernandez had dropped off the children’s father and her partner at his work site on Petaluma Boulevard North and was headed to Rohnert Park to take her daughters to Waldo Rohnert Elementary School.
The CHP said the car was in the left lane of the divided four-lane boulevard when it drifted into the median. When Hernandez overcorrected, the white, Chevy Impala LS shot across the roadway and down a steep 20-foot embankment just north of the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets, crashing through heavy brush and oak trees, before overturning and sliding into a narrow stretch of the river that runs along the boulevard.
The car quickly sank in 6 feet of water and was fully submerged.
Several agencies responded. Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said his department received a call about the crash at 8:11 a.m. One Petaluma officer on a traffic stop a quarter-mile away rushed to the call, as did numerous others from the nearby police station.
Multiple units had arrived by 8:14 a.m., including firefighters from Petaluma.
One driver who witnessed the crash pulled over and scrambled down the embankment, where he saw the mother standing on the car. According to Sloat, the man tried unsuccessfully to reach the two girls.
Eight police officers — some still wearing their gun and equipment belts — and two Petaluma firefighters ran down to the river, jumped in and began trying to reach the girls, said Lyons.
They dove in, desperately trying to force open a door or window to access the girls, still strapped upside down by their seat belts in the water-filled car.
The green, murky water limited visibility and the doors of the damaged vehicle couldn’t be easily opened. There also was an uneven river bottom and blocks of concrete and tree branches around the car.