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How to help

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help the girls' family with expenses.

Beside a busy Petaluma boulevard, friends and family gathered Thursday evening to grieve at the spot where a day earlier two young sisters had drowned in a car crash into the Petaluma River.

A single line of cars cordoned off by orange cones steadily passed by the 100 people remembering Delilah and Sayra Gonzalez, ages 9 and 7 respectively, of Rohnert Park.

The mourners, including the girls’ parents, Alexandra Hernandez and Edwin Gonzalez, gathered beginning about 6 p.m. off the northbound shoulder of Petaluma Boulevard North and wept around a shrine of flowers, candles vases and stuffed animals beneath an expansive covering of oak trees. Later, a taped recitation of the rosary played in Spanish on a small portable speaker, with some of those nearby joining in, especially on the refrain: “Santa María, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte,” or Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Ellie Maldonado, a friend who helped organize the gathering, hoped the grieving couple would take some comfort that more than 100 people turned out to mourn with them.

“They can see how the girls are loved in the community,” she said.

The gathering came on a day when CHP investigators continued their probe into why Hernandez’s Chevy Impala LS veered off the roadway as she traveled north on Petaluma Boulevard North about 8 a.m. Wednesday. The vehicle flipped before it sank in about 6 feet of water where the murky, stagnant river comes close to the road near the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets.

The girls were freed from the submerged vehicle about 8:25 a.m., about 14 minutes after Petaluma police were alerted to the crash, according to authorities. Police estimated the girls were under water about 20 minutes.

Responders immediately performed CPR at the scene, and continued at Petaluma Valley Hospital, where the sisters were later pronounced dead.

Hernandez, 26, of Rohnert Park, was able to escape the vehicle and was found standing on the car, officials said.

CHP Officer Jon Sloat said Thursday the mother will likely be cited for being an unlicensed driver. The agency typically issues citations for the violation, which is a misdemeanor, he said.

When questioned by investigators, Hernandez maintained she had been cut off. But Sloat said no witnesses have come forward to corroborate that account.

Hernandez had dropped the children’s father at his work site on Petaluma Boulevard North and was headed to Rohnert Park to drop the girls off at school, the CHP said.

Sloat said a determination on the possible citation and the cause of the accident will be included in the final report, which will take at least a month to complete. The badly damaged car will be inspected next week and test results on the mother’s blood will come back in two to three weeks, he said.

Investigators are also trying to determine if Hernandez was exceeding the 45 mph speed limit when the crash occurred, Sloat said.

Wednesday’s incident was eerily similar to an Aug. 22 crash near Jenner that killed 4- and 7-year-old sisters when their mother’s pickup swerved off the road and plunged into the Russian River.

Thursday morning, students arriving at two Rohnert Park elementary schools and a middle school were greeted by counselors, therapists, chaplains and therapy dogs to help children, teachers and school staff cope with the tragedy.

“All of them need help at times to get through something like this,” Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District Superintendent Robert Haley said.

Delilah Gonzalez was a fifth-grader at John Reed Elementary School and her sister, Sayra, was a second-grader at Waldo Rohnert Elementary School. Pinned to the wall in the school office was a large piece of pink paper with the girls’ names in a child’s script, surrounded by stars and bordered by teddy bear heads.

“They were active learners, well-loved in part of our school family,” said Haley, who was at the Waldo Rohnert campus Thursday morning.

There are about 320 kindergarten to second-grade students at Reed, and a similar number of third- to fifth-graders at Waldo Rohnert. Technology Middle School serves grades six to eight.

The psychological support network was arranged at a staff meeting Wednesday, shortly after the girls’ deaths were confirmed, Haley said. Telephone messages were sent to students’ homes after classes ended for the day, he said.

No schoolwide assembly was held Thursday, Haley said, as the two elementary schools tried to have “as normal a day as possible,” with students spending most of their time in their teachers’ classrooms.

The support services will be maintained for “as long as they’re needed,” he said.

A Back to School Night scheduled for Thursday was postponed.

Maldonado, a friend of Hernandez’s family, placed a page at the gofundme.com crowdfunding website for Delilah and Sayra aimed at raising $10,000 to help cover the girls’ funeral expenses.

“They’re a very humble family,” she said, stressed by the costs as well as the pain of their loss.

The page had raised more than $8,100 in donations by late Thursday night.

First responders described a frantic effort to free the girls from the submerged car and the repeated attempts to revive them, despite their prolonged submersion and absence of vital signs, aware of incidents where people drowned in cold water can survive longer than the standard limit of four to six minutes without a breath or pulse.

“I can say there was a chance for a rescue,” said Petaluma Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Holden, who was at the scene for part of the incident.

Immediately after Wednesday’s incident, 50 to 60 first responders — including Petaluma police, Petaluma and Rancho Adobe firefighters, paramedics and chaplains — gathered at the Petaluma police station for a debriefing.

Petaluma Lt. Danny Fish, who conducted the session along with Sgt. Ed Crosby, called the session a “defusing,” standard practice for coping with the stress and shock of a tragedy.

“It gives them a chance to express their feelings and listen to others,” Fish said. “It tells them we’re here to help if they need it. Some people need it but they don’t know it yet.”

A more formal “critical incident debriefing” will be held within a week, he said.

Sloat said he and three other CHP officers were at the Jenner drownings last week and the Petaluma crash on Wednesday. They had a debriefing, along with state parks, Coast Guard and other first responders the day after the Jenner incident, he said, and some will attend the upcoming Petaluma session.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. Staff writers Bill Swindell and Randi Rossmann contributed to this report.

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